Thursday, April 21, 2011

I've received replies to my letter from the Arts Council.

There are two because I sent it (and the play volume) to Neil Darlison, London Director of Theatre, then realised I should probably also include Barbara Matthews, National Director of Theatre. Anyway, both have now replied and both have said they were happy for me to publish their responses, so here they are.

It would be interesting to hear your own responses in the comments box below. Let's try and keep it respectful and constructive, people.

From Neil Darlison:

Dear Fin

Thank you for your thoughtful letter.

There’s much to take inspiration and confidence from , not least of which is the clearly powerful impact you have had on the pupils at Mulberry College.

I’m glad you feel the Arts Council did a ‘good job under very difficult circumstances, because that’s what we have tried very hard to do. A 29.6% cut in our funding from government couldn’t be handled without pain and we’ve had to make some difficult choices along the way, which we recognise were infinitely more difficult to receive.

For the first time in the Arts Council’s history, we’ve used an open application process, with published criteria, to make our funding decisions. We asked applicants to show us how they would help meet our goals for the arts – goals the arts world helped us to shape. We believe this was as fair and open a process as it could possibly be and that the decisions we’ve made will mean more people experience and are inspired by the arts in the years ahead.

I’d like to respond to your concerns around our awareness of the new writing theatre ecology, and the cuts to Soho and the Almeida respectively.

I can say with confidence that we have a deep understanding of how work with schools ad communities impacts on the wider theatre ecology, including the career trajectories of writers and directors. While it is true to say that much excellent behind the scenes work never makes it centre stage, I think there’s been a noticeable shift in recent years which means more and more of it does, including at the theatres you highlight. (See for example the excellent response piece to Knot Of The Heart, Crawling in the Dark, which received a fully resourced production at the Almeida; or Clean Break and Synergy Theatre Companies runs at Soho presenting work created with and by those affected by the criminal justice system.) Furthermore, our investment in new writing over the past decade has helped raise the profile and find new audiences for new work, so that it now thrives above and beyond Arts Council funding through numerous small-scale companies and venues.

As I said, considerably less money meant some tough choices, but I want to reassure you that we have considered the needs of all theatre makers, including writers, in balancing our portfolio nationally – in other words, in getting the mix right. Investment in Theatre still represents 30% of all the money going into portfolio organisations but we did make the decision to fund fewer organisations, at a reasonable level at which they can still achieve their ambitions and thrive, rather than just survive. But we know any cuts to arts funding are challenging and we’ll be continuing our conversations with both the Soho and the Almeida, with the aim of reducing the impact of the cuts on their work, including their education and outreach work.

In answer to your request, yes, please feel free to publish this reply to you letter on your own blog, if you think people would be interested to read it.

With best wishes,

Neil Darlison
London Director, Theatre

And this from Barbara Matthews:

Hi Fin

Many thanks for your letter – and for the copy of The Urban Girl’s Guide to Camping – which was very generous of you. I am looking forward to reading it.

And thank you for such a wonderful description of the extraordinary work that you have been doing with Mulberry Theatre Company. I did not know the details of that project, but I and my colleagues are very aware of the very valuable work that is done by companies and artists, those that we fund and others, in schools.

I understand that you are worried about the apparent lack of importance attached to it and the consequences of grant reductions to Soho, Tamasha and the Almeida. Our relationship managers will be negotiating with them over the next months to agree what they will be doing in return for their grants – and I can assure you that we will not be overlooking their outreach work.

More generally, I do not know if you are familiar with our recently published strategic framework (sorry – but that’s Arts Council speak for you) called Achieving Great Art for Everyone? In it you will see a very clear commitment to improving the delivery of arts opportunities for children and young people. And I know that new writing is an excellent way of doing this. We expect to spend lottery money on achieving this over the next four years. Immediately, we have awarded grants to 10 “Bridge” organisations whose job it is to help schools to make better use of the opportunities that exist and to help artist and arts organisations to work more effectively with schools. Exactly how this will work is still begin discussed (they do not come into action until April 2012), but I will be doing my very best to make sure that theatre (including new writing of course) features strongly.

I know that it looks as though the landscape for writers’ development is looking bleak. But I am optimistic that that need not be so. There were many reasons behind the particular grant decisions, but it was certainly not an overall lack of enthusiasm for writer development. Another of our priorities is talent development and so we will be talking to many people, including writers, about what needs to be done. As we said when we announced our funding decisions, NPO funding is but one of our funding streams. We also have lottery money which can be used on a project basis. We intend to take a look at how we can use strategic funding initiatives to make a real difference to the development of artists across all artforms.

So thank you for taking the trouble to right to me. I appreciate it greatly. I hope that when I next meet up with writers you will be there!

Best wishes

Barbara Matthews
Director, Theatre

P.S. Very happy for you to publish this alongside your own.


Michael said...

Dear Finn, Barbara and Neil,

New Writing in schools and the ACE National Portfolio

I read all your letters with interest. Finn rightly highlights the ‘behind the scenes’ stories about new writing with schools; and I enjoyed the response from both Barbara and Neil. It is important for the Arts Council to be aware of the value of their investment – and the potential loss of this value when it is withdrawn. Therefore I want to bring to your attention another story which resonates with the rich creative relationships described in Finn’s letter: that between professional writers and young writers/theatre-makers, between new writing and schools.

The Authentic Voices programme developed Young Apprentice writers, aged 13-18, in East End secondary schools from 2001 to 2007. It developed over 24 Young Apprentice writers and was descried as ‘ground-breaking’ by the Arts Council in 2004. Theatre Centre produced a professional touring production of their work that toured to the Soho Studio and to the Half-Moon theatre; some writers went on to work with Kali theatre; some went on to receive training from the BBC; some won an award for a short film; it also inspired Noël Greig, one of the writing mentors on the programme, to write his acclaimed play about 9/11, Trashed. I note that Theatre Centre and Soho theatre have received significant reductions in funding. I should also add that the first cohort of writers were also part of TIME(Tamasha Intercultural Millenium Education), a Tamasha project which aimed to release different cultural voices in inner city drama classrooms. These types of authentic engagement with different cultural voices through writing and young people are healthy for a cohesive society. Furthermore, these are ways small and large cultural organisations may not only search out and develop new talent but also inspire professional writers and artists to make great art for everyone. I hope the latest Arts Council funding decisions do not affect these ambitions.

I have recently been working outside of England and I have found the principles I learnt whilst directing the Authentic Voices programme are valued and create value in an international context. I undertook a British Council Artist Links residency in Brazil and was impressed by the way the Brazilian government funded marginalised communities through the Points of Culture programme. Most recently, as Associate Director at Dundee Rep, I worked closely with the playwright Douglas Maxwell, who was funded to work with the pupils of 3 secondary schools to create short plays to be performed by the Dundee Rep Ensemble actors. The young people were delighted to have their words celebrated and validated in a professional context. Creative Scotland’s mission to become one of the most creative nations in the world is backed up by Scottish Government policy and action; last year the Education minister and the Culture minister signed a joint action plan to develop creativity with schools and artists. Do Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove have similar ambitions?

Yours sincerely,
Michael Judge

Fin said...

Hi Michael

Thanks for leaving such a detailed and thoughtful response. It's great to hear about your extensive work in this field. We should compare notes at some point!

I have emailed Barbara Matthews and Neil Darlison, alerting them to your response, and inviting them to use my blog to reply, should they so wish.

Keep an eye on this thread to see if they do...

All best wishes,

Barbara Matthews said...

Thank you Michael and Fin for the great examples of work within schools. We are really grateful to you for the support and advocacy you lend to this incredibly important area. We are in a time of great change - politically and economically as well as in the ways in which we support organisations - and so it is essential that we don't lose expertise and understanding about what makes a difference.

We know you are right that authentic engagement with different cultural voices through writing and young people are healthy for a cohesive society.

I am going to send both your stories to our Director of Learning who is about to start conversations with the new Bridge organisations. These will be tasked from 2012 to ensure that schools, artists and arts organisations work together as effectively as they can to give children the best opportunities to enjoy and take part in the arts. I am sure that they will benefit from the understanding that your accounts provide.

Barbara Matthews
Director, Theatre Arts Council England