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North East arts organisations hope to be winners in funding contest

Arts Council England today announces the organisations which will receive regular funding from 2015

Northumberland Theatre Company production of Grimm Tales directed by Gillian Hambleton
Northumberland Theatre Company production of Grimm Tales directed by Gillian Hambleton

The arts funding landscape for the next three years will be revealed today and some arts organisations will be hoping good news follows bad.

In 2011, the Arts Council England announced its first list of National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) – those picked to receive regular revenue funding - as its own budget was slashed in Government cutbacks.

There were winners and losers and the same will be true today as the funding body announces its new list of NPOs for the three years beginning in April 2015.

Prominent North East losers in 2011 were Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC), based in Alnwick, which learned its £300,000 per year would be cut from April 2012.

The decision prompted a flurry of letters and emails in support of the company to this newspaper and other bodies and influential figures.

Another loser was Side Gallery, Newcastle, which lost an annual £60,000, eliciting a cry of “cultural illiteracy” from the Amber film and photography collective that runs it and prompting playwright Lee Hall to spring to its defence.

All were free to apply again this time and NTC and Side Gallery both did so.

Yesterday Gillian Hambleton, artistic director of NTC, which takes plays to village halls and community centres in far-flung areas, recalled: “We were devastated at the time.

“I don’t think you get over something like that because it’s something you believe in and commit your life to. I’ve been here 25 years and the reason we’re still here is because we’ve refused to give up the fight.

“We believe what we do, delivering theatre to theatrically disenfranchised communities in rural areas and places of low economic means, is really important. Most of the places we go to, no-one else does.

“Everybody in the office is still here but whereas we had three full-time and one part-time staff members, we’re all part-time now. It means everyone has made a financial contribution to the company.”

Gillian Hambleton, artistic director of Northumberland Theatre Company
Gillian Hambleton, artistic director of Northumberland Theatre Company
 

Gillian said the company had cut cast sizes and benefited from two playwrights foregoing a fee. That way NTC had managed to carry on putting on shows and supporting new writing and aspiring young actors.

She said the support from the community had been tremendous with a past chairman, Neil Mundy, cycling 2,012 kilometres in 2012 to raise money. Northumberland County Council still provided £6,000 annually and the Arts Council had given some project funding.

“Since 2012 we have managed to raise over £150,000 from trusts and foundations which is terrific,” said Gillian, “although most of us now spend our time filling in funding applications.

“It is getting more difficult because many trusts will only support you once every two years and you can’t expect people to keep on working for nothing.”

Graeme Rigby, of the collective that runs Side Gallery, dedicated to documentary photography, stood by the “cultural illiteracy” jibe of 2011 but conceded: “The Arts Council ensured our supporters they would explore other ways of funding us and they have done that.”

He said the gallery had received more in project funding that it would have done in revenue funding over the same period although it was revenue that made it possible to plan.

The outcry in 2011 had been important, he said. “It let us and others know just how important Side Gallery is to people.”

Amber applied this time for £60,000 in 2015-16 and £90,000 annually thereafter. It will also learn today if it has been successful in a bid for £200,000 in Arts Council capital funding to go towards improving the gallery, a project the Heritage Lottery Fund has backed with a £1.1m award.

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