When the recipients of the first two rounds of the government’s Culture Recovery Fund were announced earlier this month, many hundreds of arts organisations around the country shared the news of their success on social media. For many, from Cornwall’s Calstock Arts centre to Merseyside Dance Initiative in Liverpool, confirmation that they would receive a share of the government’s allotted £1.57bn, via Arts Council England (ACE), was the first good news since the pandemic forced events to cancel, venues to shutter, and livelihoods to be put on the line.
But as the distribution of the funds was made publicly available, certain recipients and their grants were held under the microscope. Many asked why multi-million-pound company Secret Group, which owns the immersive film experience Secret Cinema, received £977,004, when ordinary cinemas, the core of the industry, were not supported to the same extent. Others queried the £975,468 given to Ministry of Sound, the multimedia entertainment business which includes its flagship London nightclub, which was formerly managed by Conservative peer Lord Bethell.
Private Eye published an article highlighting that multi-millionaire David Ross's Nevill Holt Opera Festival had received a grant of £85,000. Claiming that Ross is “a close friend” of the Prime Minister, it added: “It’s worth asking why such a fabulously rich man merits £85,000 for his family plaything when so many desperate arts organisations have been turned down.”
The Culture Recovery Fund grants were available, on application, to “cultural organisations that were financially stable before Covid-19, but were at risk of imminent failure”. The criteria for funding were set by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the grants were administered by ACE on behalf of DCMS. In this round of funding, a total of £500m was available to organisations in England, each of a minimum of £50,000 and a maximum of £3m. The short-term investments were intended to ensure that by 31 March 2021, venues were re-open, either fully or partially, or that businesses were operating on a “sustainable, cost-efficient basis”.
In a statement to the New Statesman, a spokesperson for ACE said that it was “absolutely not the case” that some organisations were awarded grants because of their connection to the government. “Applications were assessed by panels made up of Arts Council England staff based across the country, who used the funding criteria set out in the guidance to make decisions,” they said.
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The great sums of money at the top end of the distribution list were hard to stomach for those organisations which did not receive any money at all, despite applying for much smaller amounts of funding. “It was devastating. I cried,” said Jessica Toomey, managing director of Manchester comedy club the Frog and Bucket, of her response to the rejection letter she received. “It was the sentence they put in, that ‘we considered your cultural significance but decided not to award you’... I just thought that was a real insult.”
The Frog and Bucket is the UK’s oldest comedy club outside London. A family business, it was founded by Toomey’s father in 1994 and she took it over six years ago. Toomey applied for £60,000 to secure the club’s recovery until March. She sits on the board for the Live Comedy Association and lobbied for ACE to recognise comedy as an art form and allow it to be eligible for funding for the first time. Many comedy venues did ultimately receive funding, but not the Frog and Bucket.
“It’s bittersweet,” Toomey said. “I just don’t understand why they valued other comedy clubs and not us.” The day she received the rejection letter was dampened even further by “some very cheeky emails from developers making some very rude offers on the building,” she said. “That left a very bitter taste.”
Toomey met with ACE to ask why the Frog and Bucket was not deemed worthy of government support, and still “they couldn’t really fully explain it”, she told me. She said she can’t comprehend why her request of £60,000, a small amount of money compared to the £900,000 plus that another comedy venture, the Comedy Store Limited, received, was not considered good value. “I don’t begrudge anyone in the arts getting the funding, but some of the figures upset me,” she said. “I just think, if everyone got half a per cent less, then how many more places would they have funded? Some people got too much money. It could have been distributed better.”
Jess Partridge, the founder of In Stereo publications and a freelance producer and consultant, was one of several professionals who gave feedback on organisations’ applications before they were sent to ACE. Working on behalf of a fundraising team set up by the Music Venue Trust and the Association of Independent Festivals, she read through more than 100 applications from music-related organisations.
Partridge understands that the grants were awarded in accordance with the size of each organisation and its location. “It was important that they were finding institutions that maybe didn’t have many others around them,” she said. This approach is not as simple as choosing the most-visited venues, likely the biggest concert halls, galleries and theatres in London: “a small venue in Swindon was probably more likely to get it than a mid-size venue in London because the cultural impact of the one in Swindon disappearing is much more significant than the one in London.” She added that the deprivation index was also considered, with organisations in areas of cultural deprivation prioritised.
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The task of distributing funding in accordance with everyone’s desires was always going to be near-impossible. Partridge considers the two rounds of grants to have been “fairly successful”, but said that there are “certain elements that could have better been taken into account – some people have been able to access a lot of government money already through furlough schemes, and yes, it means they still need topping up, but others haven’t been able to access that at all. I don’t know how much that was considered.”
She added that the offering for different sorts of cultural institutions could have been wider – but acknowledged that it’s difficult to work out what has been missed. “It’s very easy to see this huge list of organisations that have been funded, but there’s no list of the ones that haven’t been.”
Successful applicants were allegedly contractually obliged to credit the fund and mention the government’s “Here for Culture” campaign on social media in order to receive their grants. The ACE spokesperson said it was “standard practice for us to ask funding recipients to mention their grants on social media and in other communications channels”. They added: “This is about celebrating the brilliant work that cultural organisations do, and we would not withhold funding if an organisation wasn’t able to take part in this press or social media activity.”
But it was up to those organisations which did not receive funding to decide whether they would share the bad news with their supporters. The Frog and Bucket did, launching an online fundraiser, and has already exceeded its £20,000 goal. The organisers of rock festivals Arctangent in Somerset and 2000 Trees in the Cotswolds took a different approach: you can now buy “Culturally insignificant” t-shirts to support both festivals.
Organiser James Scarlett told me he was “absolutely crushed” by the news that neither had received funding. “I do know how important my festivals are within the rock scene in which we operate.” He said that some of the festivals’ competitors, which he feels were directly inspired by Arctangent and 2000 Trees, received grants. “And I don’t want to seem bitter, because I am happy for them, but the decision-making just seemed a bit off.”
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He wondered whether “the people deciding on the applications understand the festival industry”, as “a lot of people miss the fact that the festival sits at the top of the kind of money pyramid. If the festival doesn’t run, then nobody gets paid. If there’s no festival, the tour bus company won’t get paid, the backline company won’t get paid, the artists won’t get paid.” Organisations which have confirmed funding include ticketing websites, PA equipment companies and tour bus firms. But what good is a ticketing website if there aren’t any venues around for which to sell tickets, and what use is a tour bus business if there aren’t any festivals to get to?
“I don’t know if anyone in the government understands this, but once the festivals are gone, and all the venues are gone, they will not come back,” Scarlett said. “It’s not like opening a sandwich shop. It’s a very long process to build a brand and a loyal audience. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, and we will really miss them. They need supporting now.”