On Friday I received an email that I’ve never received before. A Moment’s Peace was being recommended for multi-year funding to support the work of our two core groups: the Women’s Creative Company and Shared Space.
We’ve been making work in many forms for nearly fifteen years and up until this point we’ve been project by project, hand to mouth, and our work has been underpinned by an unfathomable amount of in-kind (what I really mean is, free) labour. A smile crept across my face and a warmth entered my heart.
The news of this funding wasn’t going to bring about organisational stability: in part because we were being recommended for less than we requested, and in part because that wasn’t the ultimate aim of our funding bid. What it would mean though, is that for the first time ever I’d be able to say to the members of our groups that we can commit to long-term work where we can introduce them to amazing socially engaged artists, widen the community involved, make thoughtful and challenging performance work that platforms their experiences, worlds and imaginations. And, we might finally be able to do some of the structured personal development/mentorship work we’ve been dreaming of doing.
I couldn’t quite believe it. Our artistic community projects are framed by a social justice discourse and rooted in solidarity and community building, and this funding would allow us to strengthen that framework with our group members - many of whom are under extreme pressure at this time.
I looked at a long list of organisations and groups who had also been recommended for funding and I could see some extraordinary initiatives getting their work recognised. Some of whom we’ve worked closely with. I smiled again.
However, very quickly my smile started to fade, and an uncomfortable knot took root in my chest.
Whilst our project was being recommended for funding it became starkly apparent that many were not or were facing major cuts to income that was vital for their work.
This includes many of our colleagues in the arts, to whom we extend our love and warmth at a time when the future for our sector is so precarious. We know a funding blow like this will be crushing. There was also an air of familiarity about this disappointment. As an arts community we are in the habit of ‘going up against each other’ for funding pots with shared deadlines and shared public (and often delayed) announcements. Together we have navigated mutual and simultaneous disappointment and joy before. So, whilst there is LOTS to say about how unhealthy, badly managed and toxically neoliberal so much arts funding is (and lots of excellent people are writing about that just now), it does mean we have had some rehearsal for these horrible moments.
It is also worth saying out loud that this particular funding pot – and I am talking about the Glasgow City Council Communities Fund – was replacing another pot – the Integrated Grant Fund – that had, for years, been closed to applications from new or different arts (or any other third sector) requesting substantial funding from the council. As a sector we do have to accept that there needs to be an ebb and flow with who gets funding. But that doesn’t make having funding cut or getting notice of receiving no funding (especially after almost a year of waiting) as any less devastating.
If I am honest though, I probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to write this if the funding had been solely connected to the arts.
Instead what has prompted me to reflect out loud like this has been the growing realisation that so many vital support organisations across the city – many of whom our project members regularly engage with – are going to be deeply affected by these decisions.
Citizens Advice Bureau. Govan Law Centre. Women’s Aid. Amina. Arika with Ubuntu. Bridges Programme. Glasgow Rape Crisis. Hemat Gryffe. Glasgow Women’s Aid. Glasgow Credit Union. JustRight. LGBT Health. One Parent Families Scotland. Refugee Survival Trust. YCSA. I mean the list of those who have faced a flat no or major cuts, is really pretty horrific. These are life-saving and life-giving organisations. And I only name these particular organisations and their projects, because we have worked directly with them, or our networks overlap so we know their work well. There are so many others that we know less well, but I don’t doubt the pain that will be felt by their not getting this funding for the vital work they do – both now and long-term.
These are grassroots support services that are helping keep our communities alive. In the most literal way right now. They are also organisations that hold policy makers and those in power to account and have pushed for much needed safety nets against the worst of austerity. Our communities are hanging on by a thread. COVID-19 has illuminated what we already knew – that the current economic, social, educational and health systems are not working. And in the most part they are not working because they are being starved of resources, dismantled and asked to fight for financial scraps.
Cutting funding under the banner that resources are scarce feeds the mythology that there are no other ways of designing our systems – this simply isn’t true. The Council – and the Scottish Parliament – need to be making radical changes to the way our city operates, and how we care for each other. There is always lots of talk about our future, but we need to be redistributing wealth right now, not cutting the lifelines that are plugging the gaps in this very leaky boat. I know that the Glasgow Communities Fund – or more precisely those working on it – don’t hold the power to instigate fundamental, infrastructural changes but the outcomes of this long-awaited fund do further expose the very great flaws of the socio-economic model we all exist within.
And for the arts sector, this situation begs a critical question about the narratives that we have come to tell in order to secure the survival of our work. It is this question that sits at the centre of that knot in my chest. Because, if I pay attention to it for long enough I know that what I am feeling is guilt. Not because I don’t think our groups should be supported in a stable, reasonably secure way. But because I fear that what we’re seeing here is the consequences of a slow creep within the arts world to position ourselves within the social sector, which has led to us being pitted against support services that offer direct, urgent, practical support to the very people we care about. Over the last twenty years (at least) there has such a push by the arts world to solidify the value of our work. The creative arts are good for our well-being. The creative arts are good for our mental health. The creative arts build resilience. The creative arts empower. They build community. They transform towns and cities. Out of our determination to validate what we do within a social context – and to rightly demonstrate the beauty and profundity of the work that we see happen in workshops and projects everyday - we have gotten louder and more confident at articulating our relevance.
I genuinely believe all of these things about the arts, but I also know that if one of our participants comes to me and is seeking urgent support in terms of the wellbeing, their finances, their housing, kinship respite – it would most likely be some of the organisations that are facing an end in funding that I would be calling. It doesn’t matter how many forms of creative practice I introduce them to, if they aren’t safe, they will be diminished. Perhaps at a time when society is thriving (though what this means is obviously up for debate) it makes sense that the arts can operate as a powerful social actor. But clearly society is not thriving, nor is it going to be for the foreseeable future.
And my guilt – I think – can be best understood when I recall the work of Claire Bishop who in 2012 warned the sector that participatory arts’ acceptance of a social inclusion agenda meant the work was becoming less about shifting the structural conditions of inequality, and more about building resilient ‘self-administering, fully functioning consumers who do not rely on the welfare state and who can cope with a deregulated, privatised world’. Essentially the arts will make you more resilient so you can manage alone in a society where all the social safety has been dismantled. In embodying the dreaded New Labour mantra of ‘what can art do for society’ within our own narratives, we have entered the Hunger Games for the Third Sector.
Apologies for this glib metaphor, but rather than fighting for the resources in the Capitol (whether that be the unequal distribution of arts funding itself that sees ‘community work’ live off beans, or resisting with every breath the far bigger issue of the capitalist socio-economic model that only protects the rich) we have ended up in a very public ring with our fellow workers.
I don’t know where to go from here. I am thrilled with our funding outcome because I truly believe that the work we do enriches and strengthens those we work with, and importantly these projects play a part in building the very solidarity needed to struggle against inequality. And as I say we have been working without secure funding for so long, that this could be such an important moment for us and everyone we work with. It’s also scary to be critical of a funding environment that has gone ‘in our favour’, especially when we have spent years trying to get to a point where we could be secure with this kind of opportunity.
But we really can’t claim our work is rooted in social justice if we are not also willing to join the critical voices demanding vital community resources be secured, and more importantly that radical re-imaginings of how wealth is distributed be brought into being sooner rather than later. Because soon it won’t matter how resilient any of us are.
Artistic Director, A Moment’s Peace Theatre