One of Arts & Business NI's core organisational goals has always been to help sustain and strengthen the arts sector in Northern Ireland. Working with the sector on entrepreneurial approaches to income generation is a hugely important aspect of the work we do.
It was with this goal of helping to build a mixed funding ecology for the arts, underpinned by public investment, that we commissioned ‘Socially Investing in the Arts’ in 2016.
Funded by the Building Change Trust and written by Small Change NI, the purpose of this research was to investigate the funding and financing of the arts and cultural sector in NI and how cultural organisations might become more financially sustainable. This research included consultation with the NI arts and cultural sector, funders in NI and UK Trusts & Foundations.
The research demonstrated that the sector was financially fragile due to a lack of long-term financial strength for organisations or ability to build reserves, and highlighted barriers to development including capacity, strategic financial management skills and risk aversion, but also showed that there was an appetite for exploring new income streams.
The SIA report recommended development of a specific Capacity & Financial Growth Programme to combat the challenges being faced by the sector, and ultimately allow them to generate more of their own income, becoming more financially resilient.
A further piece of research entitled ‘A Blueprint for the Future’, was commissioned by A&B NI in 2017.
Funded by Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure/Department for Communities, this looked at the specifics of what a long-term capacity-building and investment scheme should look like, following the recommendations in ‘Socially Investing in the Arts’.
For a programme that specifically addresses the unique challenges of the cultural sector, the main recommendation was that support should be offered over a long-term period through a pipeline that would enable organisations to free up capacity to identify and test new ideas in a way that supports, not compromises, artistic vision and core purpose.
It also recommended that arts boards should be engaged, peer-to-peer learning should be facilitated, and that capitalisation—supporting and incentivising organisations to reduce deficit or build a reserve—should be an integral part of the programme.
Lastly, 'Socially Investing in the Arts' noted that there is no shortage of ideas in the sector for generating new income but what was needed was time and space to test these ideas and models. It also challenged funders to think about how they fund and highlighted the need to look at building longer term financial strength in organisations.
It was the discoveries and recommendations made by this report that led to the development of the proposed Blueprint for the Future – a Capacity & Financial Growth Programme for the Arts in NI.
In late 2018, armed with the results and analysis of our research, and with a robust and innovative programme in hand, Arts & Business NI started to approach UK based charitable trusts engaged in creating positive change in the NI cultural sector. Recognising the potential of the Blueprint programme, three trusts: Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, The Foyle Foundation and Paul Hamlyn Foundation supported ‘Pathway to Blueprint, a number of strategic interventions aimed at helping to prepare the foundations for the Blueprint programme.
‘Pathway to Blueprint’ enabled A&B NI to test and pilot elements of the Blueprint programme; convene a round table discussion for funders of the Arts in NI and engage experts to look at funding policy and practice and capitalisation strategies for the arts.
Blueprint is exciting and unique, as the programme will allow us to work in partnership with multiple funders, over a 5-year period, to support medium sized organisation to have the time and space to test new income generation ideas. It will include a wraparound investment package that will help free up capacity, and de-risk the process around seeking to test new ideas and models to building some financial strength for the longer term.
It's been a busy four years since we started the journey to Blueprint but we're proud to have come a long way in the development of this programme and are passionate about its potential.
While we work to secure the final pieces of the jigsaw for the next five years, we are delighted to have raised enough support to enable us to launch phase one of the programme in the New Year. Further details on the progamme and partners will be announced when we launch in Spring 2021.
We look forward to giving organisations who have creative and strategic ambition the crucial time, space and resources they need to realise their fullest potential, whilst also becoming more financial stable.
To have a sustainable future, the arts and cultural sector will always need a vital mix of public and private funding sources. The Socially Investing in the Arts research that Building Change Trust funded, and the programmes and partnerships that are evolving from this such as Blueprint for the Future, will help us to support arts organisations to have that broader funding base. It will help them to raise finance, void of grant restrictions, and enable them to look forward, and to dream big, in a way that grant finance currently may not allow.
Arts & Business is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.