Funding story: Funding the arts

With funders often insisting on a social return on the projects they support, winning grants for the arts can be tricky.

The arts occupy an odd area when it comes to the third sector and grant funding. Formally, many arts organisations have charitable status. Some grant makers do have dedicated arts programmes; other funders, however, insist on a very obvious social return on any project they're prepared to support.

"So-called high art is not charitable," said one funder, quoted in a 2005 report on corporate foundations and the not-for-profit arts sector. The report was written by David Carrington, a voluntary sector consultant, and commissioned for A&B Research and Information, a group that encourages business people to support the arts. "I think this is a misunderstanding of what is and isn't charitable," Carrington said.

David Barrie, director of the Arts Fund, the charity that exists to keep art in the UK, says: "Our view is that contact with great works of art can change people's lives. There's clearly no contest if you're up against funding to feed starving people. People need to stay alive. But when you've done that you have to think about how you make their lives worth living. In a rich country like ours, it should be possible to do that without nearly as much puffing and blowing as there is."

Some funders do also have specific 'high art' programmes - such as the Wellcome Trust's Arts Awards, which aim to encourage "original and imaginative arts projects inspired by biomedical science". However, a decline in funding for core activities has increased the pressure to fit in with funders' priorities.

Deborah Bestwick, director of Oval House Theatre, south London, says: "Half of our funding comes from trusts and foundations, but it is for educational and social work. Trusts and foundations tend to split into those that will fund projects on their merits and those that have quite prescribed programmes."

An arts practitioner from the north of England, who preferred not to be named, says: "I limit our applications to trusts because you have got to articulate yourself through a different set of stakeholder needs."

Funders who want to become patrons of the arts are few and far between, according to Bestwick. "Britain has a great tradition of making art accessible," she says. "But if you decide to be a patron of the arts and fund the excellence of the artist, you might get better art."

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