AirSpace - what has funding ever done for us?

Over the 6 or so years that I have been involved with AirSpace Gallery, I have seen the organisation operate both with Arts Council funding, and, for a 2 year period, without any funding. The experience of the latter makes the Arts Council's Catalyst programme an invaluable chance to explore non-public sector arts funding.

For its first 4 years, AirSpace was  in receipt of enough funding to provide for a series of high quality visual arts exhibitions, allowing the gallery to commission a number of internationally acclaimed artists. Over this time, the Gallery built a reputation for conceptual contemporary arts which helped to sustain it through what was to come.

AirSpace Gallery - unfunded from 2011-2013
Following a failed Grants For The Arts bid, AirSpace continued to produce high quality arts projects, thanks to the commitment of a small group of non-paid (essentially volunteer) artists, determined to maintain its existence, through a variety of innovative strategic endeavours. Yet, in truth, this was as tough a period of working life as I have known. At times it was demoralising. We had to use all the tricks at our disposal, and put all our energy and creativity into creating a programme out of nothing in oreder to ride out this phase until the next funding bid. 

The existential nature of central funding is crucial to arts organisations such as AirSpace. Outside London, the possibilities for contemporary, conceptual visual arts spaces to make money from their endeavours are slim to non-existent. There simply isn't the commercial tradition of buying art in what was recently described to me as "the regions".
the regions npl. ree-zhuns  arts-coll.  anywhere in the U.K. outside London

So, in order to provide a programme of non-commercial arts, generally exploring the critical, theoretical side of life, organisations such as AirSpace have to rely on external funding, because there isn't a commercial system which would allow for the presence of art which primarily explores ideas.

The Gallery has since received Arts Council funding, and it is as if the sun has emerged from a cloud. Our energy levels have been boosted and we have been able to design an exciting new programme of relevant and critical visual arts for the City.

Yet that experience of being non-funded has been tattooed onto our consciousness. There is a collective acknowledgement, that it is unlikely that we can go through that situation again.

Despite the recent Arts Council evidence, which affirmed the positive contribution of the Arts to the country's coffers, we are all aware that in this age of austerity, and beyond, arts organisations are on the front line. No matter that the proof is that for every £1 of government subsidy, cultural activity provides £7 in return to the nation's GDP. We know that the likelihood is that funding for the arts will be cut sooner, rather than later, and in those cuts, small artist-led organisations such as AirSpace Gallery will be cut first.

So where will our funding come from? We are tasked with exploring alternative financial avenues. Commercial sponsorship, corporate good will,  crowdfunding or, bizarrely, legacy (identifying possible wealthy benefactors capable of and willing to bequeath fortunes to the arts in their wills). These are all prescribed options.

I am approaching this period of research with an open mind. Instinctively, I believe that a rich country such as the UK should have, and maintain, a system of central subsidy for the Arts. I believe that the Arts are a positive contributory sector to political, economic and social society. However, I am not naive. I am aware that funding for the Arts is hardly a sacred cow. And the indelible memories of operating as part of an unfunded organisation, and the accrued mental scars means I'm prepared to put my natural scepticism and cynicism to one side and search for a way to be self reliant and self sustainable.

As conceptual artists, we are well used to practice-based research, and our approach and activities will be built around this process.  We are also committed to an open and discursive process. There should be no secrets. The arts are bigger than the individual. The arts in the city are bigger than the individual organisation.

If we find a way, we'll talk about it and spread the word. If we don't find a way, we'll talk about it as well.

1 comment:

  1. Good piece, Airspacers. It was a surprise to me that I went on a proper emotional journey akin to grieving when we lost our place in the Arts Council funding portfolio. Not made any better by the timing- coinciding with the change to a right wing Coalition Government, with no commitment to places like Stoke. I felt cast out, that no-one wanted to have a conversation with us, or cared about what we were doing. In the end this has become liberating. I don't have to consider them, and if no-one's looking we can get up to all sorts!