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Encounters: how Grants for the arts is helping build a resilient business

  • Date: 10 February 2014
  • Artform: None
  • Area: South West
Girls hold boards showing what stories they've told...about earth...about conflict... Encounters Shop 2012 Tooting: commissioned by Transition Town Tooting, (c) Encounters

South West arts organisation Encounters was awarded £58,556 through our National Lottery funded Grants for the arts programme to support the delivery and legacy of their key programme strands and to develop new programmes strands to build resilience in their business model.

Grants for the arts is a continuous open access funding programme that supports individuals, arts organisations and other people who use the arts in their work. They are for activities carried out over a set period and which engage people in arts activities and help artists and arts organisations across England carry out their work.

Ruth Ben-Tovim, Encounter's Creative Director, explains how the award has helped the organisation meet the challenge of building a resilient business in the arts.

Encounters [specialise in designing participatory arts projects and interventions that inspire creativity, dialogue and exchange between people of all ages and cultures. Since 2003 we have used the transformational power of the arts to work creatively with thousands of people in arts, community, education, reconciliation, rehabilitation, regeneration and environmental contexts.

We use cross-art form approaches to create spaces and processes for people from all walks of life to explore their relationship with themselves, each other, where they live and the wider world. Through all our projects, our invitation is to re-look at who and how we are in the world at this time of crisis and opportunity and together to explore new inter-connected stories to live by on individual, local, city wide and global levels. This is the case, equally, if we are running a six month inter-generational food growing and performance project, taking over a high street shop,  delivering creative conflict resolution processes in the middle east, touring street- based creative consultation activities, working with a group of young offenders outdoors or presenting a performance installation in a greenhouse.

Recently we were awarded a Grant for the Arts award to support the development of our key programmes: Encounters Shops, Conflict Resolution (Combatants for Peace), A Little Patch of Ground, Young People Talking, development of our organisational infrastructure and the development of new ideas and partnerships.

What we are doing with the funding is to take these projects and new ideas and develop their reach, the communities they work with, and explore how they could scale.  In some cases this will mean creating the tools to invite local community groups, service providers, other artists, to run their own Encounters project.

This transformation, reframing and adjusting means revisiting and reviewing our own artistic practices, core values and vision. It has also meant looking at new funding and business models. Within this was the need to develop internal digital tools and systems to keep our core admin, management and communications lean. The aim is to allow Encounters to be as creative as possible with as diverse a community as possible at the same time as building a sustainable and adaptive, flexible organisation.

This is the challenge we are exploring. It is about scale. It is about Geography. It is about impact. It is about making decisions when funding comes from one place and new ideas may take us elsewhere. This is about selling something complex and creative.  It is about creating online conversations that work to market the organisation. It is about dialogue with communties and service providers about how our approach and participatory arts in general can be a tool for change. It is about ensuring our associates know how to share the richness of our work through our photo library, blogs and on film. It's about planning to be able to deliver multi projects at the same time over several years rather than one by one.

This is a journey where each conversation, each performance or gathering during this development period allows us to test these news models and practices. That's why we didn't apply for organisational development funding alone, we see our work as ongoing action research and the Arts Council supported this model. Currently each action moves us closer to being THAT organisation that does excellent work, inspires dialogue and change in people and communities, whilst supporting itself and its network of practitioners financially and in other ways.

We have found ourselves in deep planning mode. Re-working projects and looking at them with a more birds eye view.  This is what we are currently doing with our Shop-in-a-box-Project. This is taking the tried and tested Encounters Shop project, delivered nine times in the last ten years and taking it to market as a product.  Shop in a box will enable communities all over the world to set up and run a participatory creative Shop process that catalyses and enlivens a community creating a space to reflect on the past, present and future.   

This has also meant we have had to discuss and debate our own mission and values, what it means to different people we work with and why. Is it the right mission? Are we the right people? What are the themes that underpin all of our work? This is healthy internal dialogue needed before we develop new projects and products. It is also a dialogue that will continue to be influenced by those we work with.

Most of our projects are intensely challenging in themselves: delivering A Little Patch of Ground across generations in socially deprived communities, our work with young people on court order, or working with Combatants for Peace in Palestine and Israel for example. Participation and engagement is our mission, work that meets at the intersection of social and environmental concerns. But each challenge within the projects calls for a mirror within the organisation as a whole. Is this the right work, with the right people, what do we bring, how can we add value and how can we continue to thrive? These are creative decisions but they are also those we need to build the right business model.

We feel the urgency of the environmental, social and economic unravelling of our time and so it feels more imperative than ever to make good use of our personal and financial resources and capacity. The arts feel more essential than ever in exploring new stories to live by that are interconnected and sustainable and so our development is about how we can be as fit as we can to be part of delivering this.

It's a rare and amazing opportunity to strip everything down, review ten years of practice, take risks, challenge ourselves, re look at our roles, how we are working, what we are building, be prepared to let things go and look uncertainty in the eye and do what we can to be prepared...


Find out more about Encounters.

Find out more about Grants for the arts and how you can apply.