"Have insight and perspective": An introduction to Arts Funding

There is funding out there for artists, and ambitious and interesting work should get it. In the run-up to our event on funding on Monday 11 March, we met with Mat from Arts Council England to hear his perspective on how artists and art organisations can attract ACE funding, and challenge a few common misconceptions. 

What do you do at the Arts Council?
My job title is Visual Arts Relationship Manager. What that means is I support arts organisations and artists to get the most out of the Arts Council. I don’t make decisions on funding but I inform the decision making and help artists and organisations to develop their ideas and plans. It’s a bit like being a consultant. Each relationship manager at the Arts Council has specific areas of expertise such as art publishing, education or public art. As a practising artist, mine is artistic practice and talent development so I predominantly work to support individual artistic practitioners, artist groups and project spaces.

Do you work with artists on a long-term basis, or is your job more about getting projects started?
Generally I help get projects started, but I do have relationships long term. I have relationships with a number of regularly funded organisations such as Studio Voltaire, Cubitt, Gasworks and New Contemporaries. But I also have on-going relationships with individual practitioners and arts organisations who are funded project by project. Examples of organisations would be Banner Repeater, Arcadia Missa, And/Or, and X Marks the Bokship. I support them to make applications, shape their programme and realise their ambitions. It doesn’t mean I make decisions about the funding – but I advise and support them.

What impact have you seen on the careers of the people you’ve worked with?
For individual artists, funding is best used to make the most of an opportunity, so you can realise artistic ambition, dedicate time to work or ensure high production values. If you look at someone like Ben Rivers, he’s received Grants for the Arts and this has supported him to make work and undertake opportunities that would be very difficult without funding. Eddie Peake, Jessica Flood Paddock, Ruth Beale, Cally Spooner, Rehana Zaman, all have received funding at a key point early in their career to help them realise new work and opportunities.

I would say it really helps if an artist understands what they want to achieve with funding and how this will help their career long term. Having some perspective on your work and career plan helps.

The majority of artists benefit from Arts Council England funding, at some point, regardless of whether or not they receive it directly. Subsidy for artists’ studios, galleries, exhibitions, publications, festivals all benefit artists in some way. Support for artists is not just about individuals getting money. However, that said, I’m very much in favour of artistic practitioners having control of resources and subsequently their own work and career, so the more artists that can receive funding directly the better. 

Are outcomes an important thing to think about when you’re applying for Arts Council funding?
Yes, artistic outcomes that people can engage with certainly, but also the professional or artistic outcomes for yourself.  In my experience good artistic ideas with good artistic outcomes will get funding and opportunities. And part of the process of thinking about artistic outcomes is to also think about the audience for the outcomes. Different types of work have different outcomes and different audiences. Not every project has to have instrumental, educational or social outcomes for Arts Council England to fund it. That really is a bit of a myth. The starting point should be the artist and the art. 

Are there any other common misconceptions about Arts Council applications?
There are plenty. One of the most common misconceptions is ‘public engagement’ and what that actually means. You get applications that include for instance workshops or other such ‘engagement’ activity without really thinking through why and how and who for. Public engagement does not necessarily mean you must engage with hard-to-reach people or children under 10 years old. Who you engage should be meaningful and specific to the work and what you want to achieve. To do otherwise wouldn’t result in quality art or quality ‘engagement’. Public engagement can mean looking at art or it can mean reading a critical text or it can mean participating in an art activity. The Arts Council funds a range of arts activity that engages a range of different audiences with different interests.  

Another common misconception is the need to ‘hard sell’ an artistic idea, to try and make it stand out. You often read words like ‘unique’, ‘ground-breaking’, ‘innovative’ when it’s not an appropriate description. We want to be reading an honest explanation about your work, what you want to do and where your work sits in relation to others. An artist is more impressive and credible if they have insight and perspective on their work and career aspirations.

Is it hard to meet you?
Often people meet me through personal introductions, at events, through artist networks, and peers. I’m very approachable. The second way is I will be proactive in seeking out artists and groups that are producing interesting work and should be supported. I’ll then help them to make an application and think through what they are doing. This is the part of the job I love. It pays to spend time promoting what you’re doing in this respect. Finally you can just ring enquiries and ask to speak to a relationship manager, and if they have time then can try to help you. Some advice for ‘cold calling’ would be, first read the guidance for Grants for the Arts and secondly have a fully formed idea and opportunity. If you do this, then we are in a better position to listen and help. 

Is timing an important thing that graduating artists should think about? Is there a particular point in your career that is best for funding applications?
It's always a consideration to think about timing, how you use funding and for what ends. If by timing we mean having a quality artistic proposition and the right opportunity for you to realise this then timing is clearly important. But in terms of your age or career stage then no it isn’t. Artists at different stages in their careers can benefit from ACE funding.