404 Error: Digital Arts Funding Not Found In UK

<p>The UK government recently cut arts funding by 15%. The severe budget cuts could devastate the arts scene with a significant amount of organisations losing their revenue stream.</p>

They may take our arts funding, but they will never take our freedooooom!

The 2008 meltdown of the global economy (at the greedy hands of the world’s banks) has left the world in a precarious state. Unemployment numbers continue to rise and we’ve recently seen the largest protest in London in eight years. Anarchy on the streets has turned London’s tourist areas into paint-splattered, smashed up war zones, and the anger is manifesting itself in multiple ways as people from all classes and cultures get increasingly fed up with the Conservative government’s wave of public spending cuts. The decision will see many more jobs lost and, sadly but predictably, cuts to funding for the arts.

Last Wednesday the Arts Council England (ACE), the UK national development agency that distributes public money from the government and National Lottery, announced which organizations would receive funding and which ones would be left to fend for themselves. It meant that many organizations formerly funded by the agency would no longer get any help whatsoever, in what amounted to a 15% cut taken not across the board, but on an individual case-by-case basis. According to Reuters, “The available budget was 950 million pounds, meaning that of 791 organizations regularly funded by ACE that chose to apply, only 585 were successful. Of the 542 new organizations that applied, 110 were successful.” Of the 206 unsuccessful organizations that currently receive funding—both big and small across various artistic disciplines, from poetry to theater—it seems the digital arts were hit particularly badly.

Were The Digital Arts Singled Out And Targeted?

Alan Davey, chief executive at ACE, said that decisions were based on a “clear intellectual framework” but it seems that this intellectual framework didn’t extend to encompass the many mediums, and the companies who support them, of new media arts. One organization that felt the full force of the axe was onedotzero, who were told that from 2012 onwards they’ll get nothing from the pot. Though it may not signal the end for this 15-year-old moving image and digital arts mainstay, it can’t help but have a damaging and negative effect, especially for showcasing emerging talent. While onedotzero say they’ll continue to run their yearly festival at the BFI Southbank in London—which in the past featured early works by Chris Cunningham, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry—it may not be able to participate in other events like their nationwide tours and gallery exhibitions which bring digital arts to a larger more diverse audience.

Other digital art organizations have also felt the blow. Jon Harrison, Creative Director of Lovebytes, a digital culture organization that runs a festival and a year-round programme of events, exhibitions, and educational workshops, said the cuts would be devastating. “Unfortunately, it will have a very detrimental effect on us, our partners, and the young people we work with, bringing into question our future as an arts organization. We desperately need to raise core funding to continue our planned programme beyond 2011 and to access further project funding that is available through the Arts Council and other funding bodies.”

The frustration seems to lie not just in the limitation of the funds available, but the fact that the ACE doesn’t fully understand what these organizations do. “Our application for NPO [nonprofit organization] was reviewed very positively by the Arts Council officers right up to the last stage where a swathe of ‘strategic’ decisions were made, which will be particularly damaging for digital arts organizations across the UK. It seems that those decisions were made by officers without an informed understanding of digital as an artform and its importance to wider UK creative culture and [the] CDI [creative digital industries] sector,” said Harrison.

This view is shared by another organization, Animate Projects, which also felt the violence of the cuts. As an online exhibition space that supports experimental animation by both upcoming and established animators, they applied for ACE portfolio funding, which provides revenue support for three years starting from April 2012. Director Gary Thomas said, “They rejected us on the grounds that ‘other organizations fit better into the national picture’.” A strange reply considering the organization is well established and has been receiving funding by the Arts Council for the last 20 years. Now Animate Projects, along with other declined organizations, will need to find other means of generating revenue.

Animate Projects has been supported in the past by Channel 4, who have commissioned films. Will this be a road they can retread? “We’ve been talking to [Channel 4] about reviving that, but without Arts Council support, it seems unlikely.” said Thomas. “We have funding for another year, for an online exhibition program. We’re exploring trusts and private funding, and we make some money from touring. But I think most of the organizations the Arts Council is funding would not survive without their support.”

While many visual art forms have been affected, it seems that animation has been hit harder than other types of moving image. Gary told us: “In cutting us and onedotzero, we think the Arts Council has effectively excluded animation as an artform from its portfolio. But the Arts Council says it is supporting animation—through galleries, and organizations like Film London and Film and Video Umbrella. But [those organizations] only work in the context of ‘contemporary visual arts’. We’ll work with any creative talent! I think that just shows how little the Arts Council has bothered to find out about what we do, the artists we work with, and the public we engage with.”

It seems the whole digital arts community in the UK is reeling from the destruction, angry at what it sees as a lack of understanding, communication, and ill-formed opinions. Lovebytes pointed us to a Google Group where the passion and frustration can be felt from many people in the industry unhappy with the decision, infuriated by what they see as a profound misunderstanding on the part of the ACE with regards to digital arts and new media. Rather than recognize the importance, cultural relevance, and desire for these arts from all generations, they see digital technologies, not as capable of producing art like a paintbrush or textiles, but as marketing platforms to deliver information about the more traditional arts. It seems they fail to recognize the vibrant, thriving, and entrenched industry in and of itself.

Banding Together To Weather The Storm

It’s not all gloom, some organizations do remain, but they hardly seem adequate to support an entire sector. You can see who and read more about ACE’s digital strategy here.

With the anger comes some form of acceptance and a sense of solidarity, so rather than sitting around and moping, bemoaning their lot and the government’s seeming ignorance of digital culture, there is instead a desire to stand firm and support each other through collaboration, partnerships, and acts of goodwill. A sense of defiance abounds, a rallying cry that these organizations will not disappear, will not have the technologies of new media relegated to just another means of networked distribution.

In times of trouble, one can often find comfort in a cliché, namely that “necessity is the mother of invention.” As these organizations collaborate to build communal strength, so too will the artists whom the industry relies on and supports. Shantell Martin, UK illustrator and VJ (now based in New York), who performed at last year’s ondotzero festival said, “Artists are very creative and, like myself who has never had any kind of funding or help from institutions or organizations, it’s a hard road, but not impossible. In some ways [it] can encourage collaborations and [get] artists to pull together, because there are not many other alternatives.”