Finding funding from unlikely sources

Authored piece for The Stage: August 2018
By Cinzia Hardy, Artistic Director of November Club
Winner of the 2017 Achates Corporate Philanthropy Prize

I don’t know of any cultural organisation that would say that raising funds for its work is easy. The challenges we’re facing now, and the challenges we might expect looking ahead need to be addressed head-on, harnessing the tremendous powers of community and creativity. I’m the Artistic Director of November Club, a site-specific performing arts company based in Morpeth, Northumberland. We create productions in response to our region’s emotional landscape and iconic buildings, creating stories of its people and places.

We are fortunate to be one of a handful of arts organisations in the region in receipt of regular local authority support, as well as being an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. However there are never enough funds to support the ambitions we have for the communities we serve, and we are constantly seeking new ways in which to support our artistic programme.

We’re not alone in exploring these new routes. Indeed, there has been a big shift in the last six years around how arts organisations are encouraged to look at funding. The shift came off the back of the restructure at the Arts Council, the fact that the government started giving less money to arts and culture generally, the decline in lottery funding and the huge impact of local authority cuts. The shift led arts organisations to look more to individual philanthropy – what we might describe as closer to the American model of funding – and with corporate support to fill the gap.

Philanthropy for arts and culture represents less than 1% of all philanthropy in the UK, to the tune of £480 million, but around 60% of this goes to the 50 largest organisations, leaving the majority of arts organisations across the UK to share a portion of the £200m that’s left. Small but vital cultural organisations, such as November Club, don’t often get a look in. The state of corporate support for culture across the UK doesn’t look much better, and has actually declined by almost a third between 2012 and 2016. Attracting cultural philanthropy in the North East is particularly challenging because the region has few corporate HQs so attracting sponsorship is very hard, especially for smaller arts organisations. Overall, our region receives less than 2% of national business investment and less than 1% of individual giving to culture in the UK. So clearly there’s a real need for new creative thinking about how, as arts organisations, we can create innovative partnerships with potential corporate sponsors and individual philanthropists within our communities. It’s our responsibility to help them to discover new ways in which they might be able to support and advocate for our work.

“Diversification is my motivation…” sings young farming entrepreneur Bobby Lockhart in November Club’s award-winning new musical ‘Beyond the End of the Road’, written by Laura Lindow, composed by Katie Doherty, directed by Cinzia Hardy and designed by Imogen Cloët.

Bobby tells the audience, “The watchword is diversification! You cannit put the same in and expect to get something different out. Farming doesn’t stand still. You have to move with the times…capitalise on what you’ve got”.

And diversify is precisely what we at November Club did when it came to approaching Hexham and Northern Marts in far flung Northumberland last year, with a view to staging our musical in the Bellingham sheep ring at Hexham Mart…rumoured to have the same proportions as the Garrick Theatre in London.

The stories woven into the show tell us about the complex layers of life in northern rural England.  Our fictional village ‘Place’ presents some very quirky characters as they struggle to make sense of their lives, their interwoven pasts and the inevitable march towards their unknown future. The show draws inspiration from the beautiful Northumberland countryside and the stories of hill sheep farmers.

Approaching Hexham Auction Mart as a venue to present the performances, where farmers come to sell and buy livestock, made perfect sense, and yet how many of us have thought to approach a Mart to support an artistic venture? The Mart’s Managing Director, Robert Addison, told me: it was the very first time he had ever received a request for collaboration from a professional arts organisation. Robert offered us the free use of the Mart premises as a rehearsal and performance space; use of their hospitality suite; and plenty of marketing and PR support – all of which helped us to connect with the rural farming communities we wanted to engage.

I believe that we need to seek out unexpected partnerships within our communities, not only to allow us to realise an artistic project but to embed that project even further within them. Philanthropists and supporters might not look like how we envisaged, or be located where we expect them to be. We must be prepared to be unquenchably curious and to grow our artistic practice through these new and expanding relationships. This diversification of support can only be a good thing and encourage more people to see the arts as relevant to their lives and something they can be stakeholders in.

One of the aspects I’m most proud of within this collaboration was that playing at the Mart not only created a unique setting for the performance, but also attracted a farming audience. The complexity and heavy demands of the farming calendar make it difficult to involve farming people in mainstream cultural events. Managing Director Robert Addison became a strong advocate and ambassador for our production, citing the importance of the social aspect of life in Marts… places that provide a place for farmers to gather and interact as well as to do deals. We realised together that the performance could enhance this sense of social cohesion, especially at a time when Marts are under pressure from supermarkets and there is a real need for diversification.

Hexham and Northern Marts’ innovative support of our production inspired me to nominate them for the Achates Philanthropy Prize, the only annual prize that celebrates first-time cultural giving in the UK. A friend had heard about the prize and encouraged me to apply. The Prize underlines the dual role of philanthropy in exactly the way we had experienced the support of the Marts: that it is essential to the sustainability of cultural organisations, but just as importantly helps to embed them in their communities.

We were delighted and surprised when we won and I feel so very proud, on behalf of Robert and his staff at the Mart, for his trust in us and for what his company’s support gave us. Northumberland has few designated cultural venues, so there is huge potential for other arts organisations to follow our lead and work with Hexham and Northern Marts in the future.

The Achates Philanthropy Prize win secured us £5000 which has allowed us to remount the production and bring it back to Hexham Auction Mart in late July 2018. 

I would whole-heartedly encourage other arts organisations across the UK to apply for this year’s Prize, not least because Robert is joining the Corporate Award judging panel alongside Ed Vaizey and Callum Lee, Managing Director of BOP Consulting. I think it can only be a good thing for culture that a Mart Manager and the former Minister for Culture will debate the merits of this year’s applicants. Perhaps they are an unlikely pairing, but as we’ve experienced, unexpected partnerships bring thrilling rewards.