Grants for the Arts 101 A practical, beginners’ guide to applying for Arts Council funding for the first time

I’m frequently approached by artists and emerging companies seeking help with their first Arts Council England ‘Grants for the Arts’ application and, although I’m happy to help, I often find myself asking the same questions and receiving the same answers. I can understand the confusion, it’s daunting applying for funding for the first time and fundraising is always the element of a creative project about which artists are the most scared, and often the least informed.

The first, and most obvious, thing I say to them is, “read the form. Then read it again”. The great thing about Grants for the Arts applications is that they are very clear about what they want to know and what they expect you to do. Take a look at the website, there is a How to Apply guide which is clearly written and informative; I still refer to it now, after years of writing ACE applications for my own theatre company as well as many others. There are really useful information sheets about each section of the application that will answer most of your basic questions. If that fails, there is also a helpline, but do bear in mind that the helpline is there to help you with questions of eligibility and things that are not explained in the information sheets. They are not there to help you write your application, or give you feedback on applications prior to submission.

In addition to the information sheets, you can also find information on the website about key areas in which the Arts Council are keen to engage audiences. It is well worth taking a look at the audience segmentation and research on areas of least engagement. This research can inform and strengthen your application, especially if you are working in an area where there is little arts activity available. For example, there is a lot of arts activity in central London, so a project based in Southwark may find it more difficult to access public funding than a project based in rural Norfolk as there are more projects and therefore, more demands on the available funding in Southwark than in rural Norfolk.

Once you’ve done your research, had a good look at the form and figured out what you might need to say in each section, have a critical look at your project. Are there any elements you need to develop further to more fully meet the criteria? I’d be very surprised if there aren’t! Even companies that are well established and have been making ACE applications for years generally need to develop their projects to give them the best chance of success.

There are some key areas where there is usually room for improvement:

The most common misconception I come across is that the Arts Council exists to fund artists; the Arts Council exists to create great art and culture for everyone. For the most part, the people I speak to have the first part of that sentence covered – they know what the art they want to make is – it’s the second part we usually have a problem with. The centre of a successful application is excellent art, but you have to create a fully developed project around this nucleus. Understandably, artists tend to focus very heavily on the creative elements of their project, and not think carefully enough the audiences. One of the first things I ask people who approach me is, ‘who is it for?’ The answer is often, disappointingly, “whoever wants to come and see it”. I encourage prospective applicants to think about who their ideal audience member is (other than their mum or their best friend!) and why they are ideal, and then think about what they can do to reach that person. This is an area where you can really be creative; a leaflet and a poster isn’t necessarily the best, or most cost-effective, way to reach that person. Perhaps a social media campaign would be better, or face-to-face interactions such as visiting community groups to get them engaged.

It can also be useful to think about how participation can help you to engage new or unusual audiences. Often getting people involved, and therefore invested, in your project can give them ownership of the work and make it seem more appropriate or accessible to them. Inviting a group of people who don’t usually get involved in artistic projects to participate in your work can also have interesting and unusual effects on your creative projects that can help you develop your work.

If you are considering applying for funds for an R&D (research and development) project, please be aware that is it highly unlikely that you will be successful with an application for more than £5,000; and you will need to demonstrate significant audience engagement in the process with a substantial engagement programme. This highlights how import audiences are to the Arts Council, as engaging audiences and participants in an R&D process is, by the nature of the work, difficult.

Another common misconception I come across is that a successful Arts Council application will mean your project will be fully funded. They specify in all of their literature that you have to find at least 10% of your funding from other sources; in reality I usually recommend that applicants find at least 25% from other sources, the more support you have from other funders, the more likely you are to be successful with your application. It is also worth noting that it is usually advisable, for organisations of any size, to apply for a small grant (under £15,000) as a starting point, and apply for larger amounts for subsequent projects if you are successful with an initial application. Understandably, the Arts Council want to feel confident that you can stick to your budget and will behave in a responsible fashion when granted public funds.

The first thing I usually suggest when looking for sources of match funding is talking to your Local Authority arts service, even if they don’t have funding available they can often point you in the direction of local organisations that can support you in a variety of ways. This support is not always financial, but can be of equal or greater value. Forming partnerships with local organisations can be hugely beneficial both in terms of reducing your financial outlay, but also in embedding your work in your community. When approaching these organisations, however, please remember that you need to have something to offer in return for the goods/services you are hoping to secure.

You can also fundraise independently. There may be private trusts or foundations that you could apply to, though many of these will require you to be a registered charity it is worth taking a look at what is available to you (your local authority should be able to help you find out who these organisations are, failing that a Google search will help start you off); or you could hold events or start a crowdfunding campaign. One word of warning about crowdfunding – please use it sparingly, you can’t ask the same small group of people for funds for the same (or similar) projects on a regular basis.

When putting together your budget, please bear in mind that the Arts Council has a policy to ensure artists get paid fairly for their work, and that includes you. Make sure you adhere to industry standards (such as Equity rates for actors, etc.) for all artists, and don’t forget to include costs for things like insurance, postage, photocopying and other admin costs. It’s also usual to include a contingency fund of around 5-10% of the total project cost.

We touched briefly on partnerships earlier, but this deserves a second mention. Working in partnership with other organisations can enhance your project in many ways. Grassroots local organisations, such as smaller theatres and galleries, community organisations and schools are often looking for ways to enhance their offer and will usually be willing to meet with you and discuss your project and how you might be able to help each other if you approach them in a professional and courteous manner. As I said earlier, make sure you have some ideas for how you could reciprocate, but be prepared to be flexible and listen to what they might want and how your skills could be useful to them. Make sure you’ve given yourself enough time to set these partnerships up as they can take some time to cultivate; and make sure you maintain these relationships once you have them.

Once you’ve filled in the application form, go back and read it. Then read it again. Be critical with yourself, make sure all the elements of your project are clearly explained and that you’ve represented yourself in the best possible light; edit every section to make it as concise as possible. Then get someone else to read it, preferably someone who is not directly involved in the project, as you want them to tell you if there are areas you can clarify further. Check that your budget balances and that you haven’t left out any important income or expenditure.

Make sure you have ticked all of the right boxes and filled in all of the sections. Then take a deep breath and hit submit.

The big point is, once you break it down into it’s component parts, it’s not so scary after all. It’s an important part of getting your work seen, but it’s not impossible and you can succeed if you give yourself enough time to create a rounded project and write a considered application. Good luck!

Cerian Eiles  |  May 2015