TAITMAIL South Yorkshire, a petrie dish for the business of art
The choreographer Gary Clarke was at the top of his game, creating contemporary dances that won acclaim and awards and working at every kind of venue from the Royal Opera House to the Edinburgh Fringe, making seminal pieces such as Coal (pictured), born from his Grimethorpe background in Barnsley, and its sequel Wasteland.
He worked with Opera North on a series of touring productions, created a piece, Light, for Hull City of Culture 2017, took an Akademi dance, The Troth, on a long tour of India, and… oh, the list is too long. But he’s on the board of governors of his own alma mater, the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.
Then came Covid, like a tsunami: “Everything fell apart” he says simply. In freelance terms, Covid was the great leveller, with self-employed artists at all levels of success suffering and falling through the funding gaps in the rescue packages.
Clarke had become a vital component of the dance network in this country, and pre-pandemic business had been good for the Gary Clarke Company, working on a project-driven programme up to six months ahead, bite-size pieces with bite-size Arts Council grants. But in 2020, being told to be enterprising to survive, he realised he had no idea of how that business works. “When I needed it, I could see that there was no strategic infrastructure, no sustainability. I’m an artist, I had limited knowledge of the business of arts practice to fall back on”.
And although ACE stepped forward with the right response after the Gary Clarke Company had transformed its business profile, it was local support that allowed that to happen. What that support also did was to change Clarke’s focus from the national and international to the regional and local. He is now, he says, a champion of Yorkshire.
It began with Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council whose “Bounce Back” grants scheme was devised to revive creative enterprises in its area post-Covid. Clarke’s application was successful and the company would have a future.
But how safe would that future be? A return to the pre-Covid model would mean freelance art making staying as vulnerable as it ever was, more so with universal economic uncertainty. It was a frightening prospect, Clarke realised, not a reassuring one. In the past he had brought in experts to do things he couldn’t, themselves freelances many of whom had been forced to leave the sector in the lockdown period.
At this point, the network working, he was introduced to Kate Brindley, the project director for arts, culture and heritage for the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (SYMCA). She pointed him towards a new SYMCA initiative, Skills Bank. “She said it didn’t really do what I needed – it was usually for training people to manage unfamiliar machinery, that sort of thing. What I needed was a bespoke programme”.
But rather than send him away, Skills Bank encouraged Clarke to design his own checklist of skills generation – business planning, producing, marketing, fundraising, recruitment. Fortuitously, the Skills Bank encounter coincided with the arrival of a small Arts Council grant for organisational development.
Over two months he had a series of consultative sessions with experts in each of the fields he had identified as missing from his spread of knowledge. “It’s given me the tools I need to set up and run a business” he says. “I’m not an expert in any of these disciplines, but I have enough knowledge of them to be able talk sensibly with those who are”.
He was also tutored in how to make a successful bid to the Arts Council for national portfolio funding. The bid was duly submitted and in November came the news that he had been awarded NPO status and £350,000 a year from April for the next three years. He is now drawing up a list of the team he needs, alongside executive producer Annabel Dunbar (who was freelance and is now a full-time part of the Gary Clarke Company), including a general manager, a local networking officer, a finance director, a fundraiser.
“It’s amazing, it’s huge” says Clarke, who at last has the scope and time to plan larger and more innovative productions backed by a professional outfit comfortable in the arts business of which a year ago he had scant knowledge. “It’s changed my language, the way I speak to potential funders, and I understand the elements of their business. It doesn’t mean I’m a fundraiser now, I’m still an artist but one who knows now how the other side of what has to happen actually works.”
He sees his bespoke crash course in the business of the arts as a blueprint for other independent creatives across the spectrum. “It’s been a struggle, but this outcome has been amazing for me and could be for others. Despite Covid and lockdown, there’s a bright future ahead”.
This week a report from the House of Lords condemns the central government’s approach to the arts as “complacent”, “characterised by incoherence and barriers to success” and “jeopardising the sector’s commercial potential”. Westminster regards the arts as child's play that ought not to trouble the grown-ups, but the Skills Bank programme for the SYMCA offers a counterpoint. Managed by Calderdale College from Halifax it's open to any freelance individual or creative small business that can identify a need and can benefit from a tailor-made programme. The scheme is unique of its kind to the region, generated by a co-operative of local authorities in South Yorkshire that sees creative endeavour as an economic opportunity.
“Too often creative and cultural businesses get overlooked in mainstream support and investment programmes – partly a translation and language barrier, because they have different networks and are often small/lean organisations, plus lack of understanding still of their role and value in the economic fabric of place” said Kate Brindley, adding that the Gary Clarke story is “uplifting and demonstrates the power of bespoke support for creative and cultural businesses to aid them their journey of sustainability and growth.”
If the peers are right we cannot wait for the government to take lessons from the North, but Gary Clarke’s story tells us that local governments are well aware that the butter on their bread can be art, and here it is a business that has been to school and emerged into adulthood. Through the co-operation at local and regional level such a vital resource can become national without benefit of national politicians.