Skip to main content Skip to site map (in footer)

Sustainability for the arts in Dorset

  • Date: 18 January 2011
  • Artform: All
  • Area: South West
A group of people sit and listen to a man talking in an old building with large wooden beams Dorset arts organisations on a learning day at the Ancient Technology Centre, Dorset, photo: John Snelling, Studio Elite

Arts Council England works in partnership with local authorities to help us achieve our mission of great art for everyone. Through our funding, brokerage and development role, we aim to maximise our investment in the arts by building positive relationships with local councils and working with cultural organisations to increase engagement in the arts.

Dorset County Council has brought about lasting organisational and behavioural change among the county's arts community. In 2008 the council set a target to increase adult engagement in the arts. It used this target as a tool to bring the sector together to pursue long-term organisational development.

With the support of the Cultural Leadership Programme, Dorset has facilitated a sustainable model for increasing levels of engagement. An established group of arts organisations and individuals are now committed to working together to increase engagement in the arts as well as achieve Dorset's strategic cultural outcomes, within a climate of less funding.

An initial meeting with seven Arts Council-funded organisations in the county established a set of principles for genuine collaborative working towards achieving the target. These principles - reiterated at each meeting every two months - have guided the group's thinking ever since.

Dorset's principles for collaboration

  • increasing engagement in the arts is a good thing
  • we can achieve more together than as separate organisations
  • we don't have to stay a member of the group if we don't want to
  • we will question assumptions made at meetings

Over time more than 50 people, including voluntary arts organisations, individual artists and others, have been invited to join the group. Subgroups have also formed, such as the visual arts group, which focuses on joint marketing and programming.

The group is now collaborating around delivering strategic cultural outcomes for Dorset. By focusing creatively on the outcomes the power and momentum of the group has increased significantly. All this is a remarkable leap arising from a target to increase levels of engagement in the arts.

Jim Brewster, Audiences South West, said: 'Dorset is doing well here because it did the right thing. It used the impetus of the target to change cultures and the thinking in organisations, instead of looking to change consumer behaviour (difficult) or influence the research (silly). This was delivered and this is a big achievement.'

Main challenges and how they were tackled

Achieving self-determination

The group has faced challenges similar to those experienced by any other collective of independent-minded people, for example: reluctance to take things on, individuals not always doing what they agreed to, shadow meetings and personality issues. 

Dorset County Council has provided strong leadership and support for the group throughout. Its role has been to facilitate discussion, enabling organisations to work things through for themselves. It has also nurtured a small core group to the point where they are in a position to provide the leadership necessary. 

Keeping the faith

Organisations have understandably questioned attending 'yet another meeting' and have needed to be clear that they are not there for what they can get out of it or because it is seen as a path to funding.

The group benefits from regular reiteration of its agreed ground rules and confirmation of its purpose to establish a new way of working collaboratively that will produce tangible results in the medium to long term.


Dorset's approach has:

  • enabled organisations to think through how to direct existing resources better, helping to reduce their dependence on public subsidy and increase their resilience
  • created a structure for sustainability based around an organisation's contribution to an outcome rather than the organisation itself
  • established a critical mass of arts organisations able to respond collectively to strategic commissioning opportunities and bring in expertise and funding from outside the sector


What worked well

  • leadership support through action learning sets, mentoring and coaching schemes helped organisations communicate more effectively with each other and gave them the skills they needed 
  • a good learning programme as part of the process constantly introduced new concepts and ideas
  • starting with a small group of committed individuals then extending it out through a 'spiral of learning' helped keep control of the process and ensure everyone understood the group's purpose
  • establishing ground rules at the outset and reiterating them at every meeting reaffirmed why people were there and what they'd signed up to do
  • combining creativity with strategy is essential to keep things anchored
  • some external facilitation can give a group focus and stop it becoming inward-looking
  • the involvement of the regional audience development agency at all stages of the process has been important for introducing new ideas and the approach to data management

What worked less well

Maintaining an overview of the group, knowing when to let things unfold naturally and when to intervene, and getting to grips with complex group dynamics has been more challenging than anticipated.

Next steps

Organisations applying for Arts Council funding in 2011 are applying within the framework of collaboration; instead of applying as a standalone organisation, each will specify who they will work with to deliver the strategic outcomes of Dorset Strategic Partnership's Cultural Strategy and how these dovetail with the Arts Council's priorities.

For more information on the project, contact Mike Hoskin, Arts Development Manager, Dorset County Council,

Browse more local authority case studies.