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Last updated: June 8, 2012 7:16 pm
From running theatre workshops in China to offering ballerinas for corporate events, arts organisations are adopting more business-focused strategies to try to make up for big cuts in public funding.
Theatres, museums and galleries were forced to innovate fast when the Arts Council, the support agency for the arts in England, reduced grants by an average of 15 per cent last year as part of the government’s austerity programme.
Projects have to rely on their creativity to find other ways to make money as the economic climate has hit ticket sales and made donors more cautious.
Northern Ballet, a dance company based in Leeds, increased its fundraising target by 85 per cent overnight after cuts to funding led to a £1.8m shortfall in its budget for a three-year period.
“It was horrendous when the cuts came through. It was more than we had ever anticipated,” said Mark Skipper, Northern Ballet’s chief executive.
Having just completed a fundraising drive for a new £12m building, the company was able to use its new moneymaking expertise and contacts to help raise the cash.
One year on, its “Sponsor a Dancer” campaign, in which ballerinas meet – and sometimes dance at events for – their donors, is one of several initiatives that have helped it raise more than 70 per cent of the three-year target.
“We had tried to avoid this in the past as it puts more individual responsibility on each dancer,” said Mr Skipper. “But we decided, ‘Needs must.’”
Actors at London’s Almeida theatre, which had its grant reduced by 39 per cent, have also become fundraisers. People were given the chance to play poker with the cast of the recent production House of Games, as one of a range of offers for corporate sponsors.
Museums are building personal connections with their donors by allowing them to adopt objects or renting out parts of their buildings. Museums Sheffield, which lost all its Arts Council funding, is hoping to make money by opening up its buildings for events, including hen parties.
The variety of schemes that arts organisations are trying out suggests that corporate sponsors and individual donors are no longer content to pay simply in order to have their name on a poster.
“You can’t just say, ‘We’re brilliant – give us your money.’ You have to think about what the [sponsoring] company needs to achieve,” said Philip Spedding from Arts & Business, which trains artists to talk to corporations. “The arts are so full of astonishing, passionate people who are so full of talk about themselves.”
The National Youth Theatre – where many renowned actors, from Sir Derek Jacobi to the comedian Catherine Tate, first trod the boards – is raising money by branching out into emerging markets. The NYT has toured Chinese cities, running theatre workshops for four years, making cash and giving British young people an opportunity for cultural exchanges.
Paul Roseby, the theatre’s artistic director, is now seeking to expand into South America and Saudi Arabia.
But the youth theatre’s experience also shows the need for the backstop of public funding. After a Chinese subcontractor failed to pay up, the NYT had to approach the Arts Council for funding that was “critical” to stop the company collapsing, said Mr Roseby.
Some fear that concerns about financial pitfalls could stop arts organisations from taking the creative risks that help the arts to develop and thrive.
Michael Attenborough, artistic director of the Almeida, is worried that the UK could lose out if creative organisations focus more narrowly on commercial success.
Pointing to War Horse, a great box-office hit at the National Theatre, he said it was difficult to predict what would strike a chord with audiences. “A horse played by a puppet dies in the trenches? People would think you were insane,” he said.
A proliferation of projects to attract commercial sponsorship could also reduce the amount of donor money and resources that go into arts education, which many think is essential to sustain arts in the future and also to teach transferable skills.
Mr Roseby is launching a fundraising drive, noting that NYT alumni include doctors, teachers and MPs, as well as stars.
The skills the theatre teaches are not “luxury goods”, he said. “If this country is going to help itself and help youth unemployment, it has to recognise the need to invest in young people’s soft skills.”
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