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Even at a glance, the UK’s arts funding is in dire straits. Analysis by Campaign for the Arts found that, between 2009 and 2021, per-person cultural funding was reduced by 50% in England, 33% in Scotland and 36% in Wales, in real terms.

After 13 years of Tory rule, grant-in-aid and lottery funding for the arts in England has been reduced by £178 million in real terms, and, over the last decade, Arts Council NI funding has decreased by 30%.

The future for arts funding is not looking optimistic either; the Welsh government has cut arts and culture by 10% in its draft budget for 2024/25 and the overall Scottish culture budget is 6% smaller than in 2022-23, in real terms.

These impending reduced budgets come at a precarious time: when we are all feeling the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and high energy bills, as well as the aftermath of Brexit and Covid-19. But they are also coming at a time when we need the arts more than ever.

Not only are the arts essential to the British economy – contributing £109 billion and employing two million people in 2021 – they also make the UK the envy of the world as the fifth largest exporter of creative services in 2020.

Community cohesion

Closer to home, the arts boost local economies, support other industries and cultivate community cohesion. Whether it’s joining a local choir, listening to music alone or standing in a concert crowd, the arts enrich our lives every day: educating us, improving our health and shaping our perspectives.

Funding cuts to the arts, therefore, should concern us all. “In my mind arts funding is an ecosystem; if you take it away things will break down,” says Matthew Whiteside, a Glasgow-based composer and an MU Executive Committee member. Whiteside’s first album was supported by Creative Scotland and subsequently his career has been buoyed by public funding.

“From that initial fund from Creative Scotland to record an album, I’ve developed a career over the last ten years,” he says. Even when an artist receives funding for a singular project, that initial investment has a far-reaching impact, as Whiteside explains: “Funding takes a risk on an unknown and by taking that risk it develops something that can steamroll into something bigger, other employment opportunities [for and by the funded artist].”

Outreach initiatives

Whiteside is also CEO of The Night With…, an award-winning charity that presents salon-style contemporary classical concerts in informal venues. Funded by Creative Scotland, as well as trusts and grants,The Night With… has employed numerous musicians and composers for over 63 concerts and 20 commissions since it began in 2016. By staging concerts in spaces like bars, galleries and nightclubs, The Night With… brings classical contemporary music to audiences who may not be able to pay for higher-end ticket prices.

Without funding, it would be impossible to keep ticket prices low and contemporary classic music accessible

“To me, The Night With… is trying to do outreach for classical music,” says Whiteside. “The Night With… programmes music from the last 40 years by mostly living composers. It says that this artform is still alive [by] bringing it into venues that are maybe more familiar to an everyday audience.”

The Night With… employs musicians and commissions new work from composers, paying MU rates for performance and rehearsal time. Without funding, it would be impossible to do this and also keep ticket prices low and contemporary classic music accessible.

Empowering people from marginalised backgrounds

Another charity organisation that seeks to break down barriers to the arts is Edinburgh-based Spit It Out, an award-winning organisation (SCIO) dedicated to opening conversations around consent, mental health and healing through creativity, accountability and community care.

Spit It out was formed by musician Bee Asha Singh and filmmaker Lea Luiz De Oliveira, who still lead the collective. It began as a DIY poetry and music night, run for and by people from marginalised backgrounds with experiences of trauma. After the Covid-19 lockdown, the collective decided to re-organise into a charity so that they could apply for funding pots.

“We knew that if we didn’t start a charity we wouldn’t get any funding and we believed that everyone should be paid for what they were doing,” explains co-director Lea Luiz De Oliveira. “Now we have five employees and we’re trying to make this as sustainable as possible.”

We knew that if we didn’t start a charity we wouldn’t get any funding and we believed that everyone should be paid for what they were doing

Spit It Out produces an annual festival, as well as year-round workshops, performances and events. Its priority is to bring together communities from marginalised backgrounds and to ensure the artists on stage represent their audiences.

“I really struggled as a performer,” says co-director Bee Asha Singh, who curates Spit It Out’s music events. “I never saw anyone like me on stage until I saw [the poet] Hannah Lavery perform for the first time. That was someone who understood my experience, and it made me feel like I was able to speak about what I wanted to. It’s essential to highlight voices of people, especially in spaces that people are coming to because they have experience of marginalisation. When they go into spaces where they see someone on a stage who looks like them, they go, ‘Oh I can also do this’.”

Educating and empowering

Education is a significant aspect of Spit It Out’s outreach. Free workshops, which range from basket weaving to wood work and poetry writing to DJing, break down financial barriers for attendees, and allow people to try creative practices often for the first time.

“Spit It Out stemmed from people picking up a mic for the first time and feeling welcome to do so and safe to share,” says Singh. “People from marginalised backgrounds are often [made to feel] inferior and imposter syndrome. Spit It Out allows people to flourish in creative spaces.”

Positive impact on mental wellbeing

Studies have found that frequent arts participation and cultural attendance correlate with lower levels of mental distress and improved wellbeing, something that Spit It Out’s Luiz De Oliveira emphasises: “I believe in using artforms to bring people together, to inspire them to start their own projects, to help them with mental health and difficult times – but I don’t think art should just be funded because it’s fighting for something. Art is also going to help you because it allows you to escape and have fun. It’s joyful!”

I don’t think art should just be funded because it’s fighting for something. Art is also going to help you because it allows you to escape and have fun

A 2017 report by the Welsh NHS Confederation found that prescribing art has a significant impact on patients’ health, reducing hospital admissions and improving clinical outcomes. Regularly participating in arts in hospitals and care homes have also been proven to reduce patients’ anxiety and stress and overall improve health and wellbeing.

Why funding is vital for smaller organisations

Spit It Out’s current funding will run out in 2024 and, at the time of speaking, Luiz De Oliveira is in the midst of writing applications to Creative Scotland and small trusts.

When asked what would happen if Spit It Out didn’t receive funding, Singh is frank. “It would leave a lot of people without the opportunity to be seen or be heard, in a format where they feel comfortable to do so. We support musicians doing their first ever gigs. It’s not easy to apply to other festivals in Edinburgh because you need a strong track record. That’s why it’s important that smaller organisations continue to be funded.”

Making music careers possible

Cuts to arts funding have a rippling effect, impacting audiences, national organisations, independent venues, grassroots community projects and, of course, individual artists. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without funding,” says Die Hexen, an IFTA-winning composer, sound artist, performer and filmmaker based in Northern Ireland. “[Funding] has helped me to afford obscure instruments and music software. As a neuro-diverse person and a one-person enterprise, it’s also helped me to afford expensive, interactive, and responsive studio equipment that has improved my workstation, workflow, and creativity, and helped me to build and finance my own studio.”

Die Hexen was a recent recipient of Arts Council NI funding, which they will use to buy instruments that “offer intuitive and tactile interfaces over conventional keyboards and tech” which are barriers they face as a neurodivergent artist.

The value of arts funding

Time to create is a necessity for artists, and yet for many artists, it is often financially impossible to take time off from commercial projects and performing. This is where funding comes in.

“Funding has afforded me the time to experiment and grow as an artist, which is unaffordable on artist’s wages, especially in Northern Ireland,” says Die Hexen. Despite Northern Ireland’s burgeoning film and television industry – since 2018, screen productions have contributed £330m to the region’s economy – wages remain low.

“Ask any film composer in the north of Ireland and they’ll tell you the same: it’s a battle to make a living wage,” says Die Hexen. “A lot of my work comes from outside the UK, including the south of Ireland. In the States, composer’s fees can be three and four times as much as they are here.”

Funding is an imperfect solution for industry-wide problems such as low pay, but it is essential to many artists who could not develop their skills without it. “While I’m immensely grateful to Arts Council funding, which has been absolutely invaluable, it should be something to greatly enhance our careers, not to subsidise it,” says Die Hexen.

Funding makes sure skills are still around, to create vibrant cultural scenes and to develop new artforms and practices

Matthew Whiteside also points out that funded artists are able to take risks to develop their practice that they might not without funding. “The value of funding is not just on the number of audiences that come through the door or how many composers are commissioned; it’s also making sure skills are still around, to create vibrant cultural scenes and to develop new artforms and practices. If it wasn’t for funding, modern synthesisers wouldn’t be around, for example,” says Whiteside.

The future of art relies on funding, as do the benefits of the creative industries on individuals, communities and nations. Shrinking pots of funding should therefore be a concern for all of us – not just artists. “We shouldn’t need funding to survive as artists,” says Die Hexen. “That said, I am very glad that organisations like the Arts Council and the National Lottery exist, as we need the arts now more than ever.”

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Katie Goh

Katie Goh is a freelance writer and editor who has written features and criticism for the Guardian, Vice, Prospect and gal-dem amongst others.

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