Getting to the heart of Grants for the Arts

Posted By Simon Mellor on 03 December 2015

Simon Mellor, our Executive Director for Arts and Culture, blogs about what really goes on in our Grants for the Arts decision meetings.

Giant patchwork Great Britain flag cake being cut for audience to eat.
Edible Art Show 10. Photo © Matthew Andrews/The Gallery at Munro House

A recent blog about the Arts Council’s decision-making priorities reminded me of some of the assumptions I used to have about the Arts Council before I joined. I pictured it as a place dominated by bureaucrats, more interested in measuring the instrumental impact of the arts than discussing the quality of the work itself. It turns out that I was wrong.  

The vast majority of people I work with here are passionate about art, about spotting exciting artists and helping them to make their work. I am constantly amazed by the amount and variety of work my colleagues go to see. The result is that the Grants for the Arts panel meetings that I have sat in are generally characterised by lively debate about how good the art is we are being asked to support. We don’t always agree on the quality of the work – and defining what we even mean by ‘quality’ can be frustratingly elusive at times. But the discussions are always informed and passionate and the decisions are never solely about the quantifiable outputs or instrumental impacts of our investment.

Of course we care and talk a lot about audiences and who is likely to experience the art, because we want the range of projects we support to reach as large and diverse an audience as they possibly can. But we know that the quality of the work must be good – or how can we expect audiences to want to experience it and want more of it? 

Four actors in various costumes look shocked and scared toward the camera.
He Had Hairy Hands by Kill The Beast, Live at LICA. Photo © Richard Davenport / Kill The Beast

The Grants for the Arts programme has been a terrific success, supporting tens of thousands of artists to make great work and to get it to millions of people up and down the country. We never have enough money and the decisions are often difficult. As other sources of funding dry up, pressure on our Grants for the Arts programme grows and grows every year. That’s why, whenever we have been able to, we have increased Grants for the Arts budgets. In 2014/15 we spent almost £20 million more on Grants for the Arts than we did in 2013/14.

Of course, we always need to think about how we can make the programme work better, to ensure that it is backing the most diverse range of artists and their work as possible. Is it as simple as it could be? Is it hospitable to the new types of art that are emerging? Could it support individual artists better? But I hope it will always be a programme that measures its success in terms of how well it has been able to deliver great art to everyone.

So if by chance you’re an applicant to Grants for the Arts, what we really want to hear about is the quality of your work and how you plan for it to reach as wide an audience as it possibly can. I can’t promise you that your application will be successful. I can promise you that that is what the Arts Council staff making the decisions really care about.

Find out more

Learn more about our Grants for the Arts programme

Discover more about the work we fund through Grants for the Arts by exploring our case studies.

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