Improv as Culture: Arts Council Funding for Improv

As an improvisor of over 6 years and a much more recent student of Art and Cultural Management, learning about the funding and decision making in the cultural sector, I have found myself reflecting more and more on why exactly there isn’t more Art’s Council funding. A blossoming art form in the UK, but not without a rich history connecting us to a worldwide movement of spontaneous theatre, it is surprising that the Art’s Council isn’t providing it the funding it needs

I was looking through your ten year strategy Great Art and Culture for Everyone which outlines Art Council England’s direction for the years 2010 to 2020. It outlines a strong and clear vision for these 10 years of culture. Two key quotes stuck out to me. The first was the poignant statement:

“Art is about the discovery of the unknown and unimagined. Artists will innovate, and push boundaries.”

The second, a fantastic statement on the ever-changing nature of the arts council

“As the world evolves, the range of artists and arts and cultural organisations – and the types of arts and culture – supported by the Arts Council must evolve too.”

This painted a wonderful image of the Arts Council as being responsive to the changing trends and new developments in the arts sector. An Arts Council that is open minded and prepared for a level of flexibility to ensure it supports a wide range of art new and old.

Yet, at the beginning of researching this article, I hadn’t heard of any officially Arts Council Funded improv comedy.

Now, at the time I thought that I merely hadn’t investigated it thoroughly enough. Most improvisors I know had the same assumption as me, that there just wasn’t any funding and that was just a fact of life all improvisors simply had to deal with. However, I decided to investigate and see if anyone had attempted to gain funding from Arts Council Englandand what the process was like.

I found two different case studies of interactions between the improv community and the Arts Council; one where funding was not granted, and one where it was.

The first person I talked to was Ian Mclaughlin, who told me about his experience with securing funding from the Arts Council for the big festival in Newcastle he co-hosts with Bev Fox, aptly named “Newcastle Improv Festival”. His experience was less than positive. He said:

“We put an Arts Council bid in, but we were refused. The main concern was the quality of the shows – reading between the lines I think they don’t really see Improv as an art form in itself and we couldn’t guarantee that quality even though we had some big names playing – because it is improvised!”

Ian was, as he admits, having to infer the broader reasons, entirely understandable when there is currently little to know comprehensive, written statements from the Arts Council outlining their stance on funding improv. Ian also however currently has a positive outlook, due to the amazing success of the festival:

“The festival was a big success – 98% attendance and amazing feedback. I’ve been talking to a local Arts Council adjudicator and he said most bids are refused the first time and that now we have proven its potential we should stand a good chance of funding for next year.”

Some good news then! This being a first time application made the Arts Council hesitant. Yet, this left me uneasy. Had Newcastle Improv Festival not had funding from elsewhere to get the project off the ground, how would they have been able to do such an amazing first festival? Surely there needs to be a certain level of taking risks in new projects from proven professionals (those responsible for Newcastle Improv Festival have been behind amazing improv projects since 2003!) to allow new artforms to flourish? Many improvisors and improv directors, like many artists in other fields, are doing this work in their spare time. Perhaps the Arts Council should be taking small leaps of faith to kickstart a subculture that could benefit hundreds. More widely, this attitude wouldn’t just support improv, it would support many other blossoming art forms that are waiting for that big opportunity to grow and bring rich opportunities to the communities around them.

One improv community facilitator I spoke too had achieved Art Council funding. Jon Trevor, of the Birmingham Improv Festival, had achieved funding on two separate years. He explained to me about his first successful funding application:

“We were successful.  Perhaps helping this was the fact that I had been a professional theatre director for 20 years, including being Artistic Director of Arts Council funded companies, which might have given me credibility.  Also, that Frogs had been running successfully for about 8 years, and the previous year’s festival was a success.”

The following year, he applied again for the same funding, he explained:

“We asked for similar amount – and got turned down.  We resubmitted with a more ambitious proposal […] This second application was successful”

It was clear from my discussion with Jon about this second application was that growth was the important factor for the funding of the second year. Being able to demonstrate an ambition to grow the festival to achieve more ambitious goals was key to demonstrating the benefits of the project to the Arts Council.

Through this process, I came to two key realisations. One, that the Art’s Council having no official recognition of improvisation, and no official stance on funding it, means that many improv projects that may otherwise look to apply for funding are being put off by the assumption that the funders just aren’t interested. Two, that we as improvisors can make our experience with securing funding by reflecting on ourselves, our groups and the cultures we nurture. The Arts Council have goals and intended outcomes of their funding that show that the products they are funding are wanted, and have a positive social, economic and personal impact of the communities they serve. So, we as improvisors must take a professional approach to these targets if we are to be treated as professionals.

The two group leaders I talked two demonstrated that they were setting a fantastic benchmark for professional attitudes and reflective thinking. Here’s hoping we see these projects as flag ship projects in a blossoming new era of Arts Council Funded improv.

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