Written evidence submitted by Festival of Thrift
Evidence from Festival of Thrift, Redcar, Tees Valley to DCMS Review in to Corona virus
Festival of Thrift CIC is a project funded national organisation based in Redcar, Tees Valley, an area of significant deprivation , including cultural deprivation. There are only six NPOs in the whole sub region; two arts centres, Arc, Stockton, and Middlesbrough Town Hall; a gallery, MIMA in Middlesbrough; a children’s theatre, Theatre Hullabaloo in Darlington; a Festival, SIRF in Stockton and a consortium of five museums, one of which is in Redcar.
Against that picture is a committed and collaborative network of freelance artists and small organisations trying to achieve big things on extremely limited resources. These include a network of outdoor festivals of which Festival of Thrift is the largest and best established. It operates on a mixed income basis of grants, trusts and foundations, sponsorship and earned income from merchandise, carparking, and stall fees on a year to year basis.
FOT has run seven free Festivals since 2013, positioning artists as inspirers to action & change on sustainability & building a community to co- create each event, dissolving barriers between artists & audiences. We actively participated in the Redcar / Middlesbrough bid for a CPP, Borderlands, to continue these principles, although we are now unable to benefit from the successful bid as expected .
We’re recognised nationally (Observer Ethical & Visit England Gold Awards) & have welcomed over 35,000 visitors each year from all over the country to an area of low cultural engagement. Audience analysis shows involvement from all demographics, demonstrating our accessibility. Attendance from across UK (16%) exceeds other Outdoor Arts Festivals.
Although regional responses will have been made to this Enquiry we write now directly, as small, freelance and project funded organisations have not been actively sought or heard. Despite massive reductions in income (From a turnover of £420,000 to less than 25% of that figure) we and they are providing exemplary ideas and examples of innovative responses in engaging online and with local disadvantaged communities.
• We advocate a freelance / independent sector voice at the table when medium to long term planning is developed as their needs differ significantly from those in buildings or with secure long term support.
3.What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the Festival and other independents in the sector?
• The effect of CV-19 in the Tees Valley has been dramatic in all areas of activity and we expect it will continue for two to three years at least. Culture has been hard hit with little direct support available.
• Social distancing will mean that we and other similar organisations working on large events will not be able to return to a viable business model for many months. Our annual Festival in September is cancelled and it is challenging to see how we can plan for 2021. We are exploring significantly smaller, hyperlocal events and online activity. This however, needs new investment to undertake new areas of activity as it is a new skillset we need planning, training and development time and the opportunity to recruit new staff with different skills.
• We can and have successfully put some of our content and information on-line and will continue to do so. But it will be difficult to monetise this, particularly if larger and better known organisations are offering similar cultural experiences on line and / or moving into the outdoors sector without the expertise but with more secure funding to experiment.
• International touring has taken a big hit with the additional quarantine regulations on top of reduced free movement.
• The business sector, in an area of low investment in culture, has withdrawn sponsorship and demonstrates a deep lack of understanding of the needs and operating model of the cultural sector and our reliance on public funds alongside earned income.
• We do not occupy a building and therefore do not qualify for rate relief and other support.
4. How effective have DCMS arms-length bodies been?
• Although the ACE Emergency Fund was presented as a positive, it was a step back for us. We submitted to ACE for £200,000 for 2 years of project support to manage two large outdoor Festivals in September 2020 & 2021, & to move into & equip a new office & workshop base in Redcar. This application was suspended due to Covid19. We have received instead the maximum Emergency support of £35,000.
• However, the uncertainty around future funding streams from ACE and elsewhere is putting the organisation, already fragile at risk. The lack of communication around this issue makes it extremely difficult to plan.
• Whilst there has clearly been some central and national discussion and development of a co-ordinated response, this has not been visible at a regional level and the involvement of the freelance and independent sector has been limited, with a general focus on NPOs.
• Our other support from local authority and TVCA sources has been significantly reduced as they focus on what they perceive to be “the business sector”. The Tees Valley Combined Authority although outside the direct remit of the DCMS, is like other LEPs an important partner and a necessary element of any planning. It is vital that they get the clear message from their sponsoring departments within Government that they should be involving the cultural sector in any of their planning.
• We were invited to join an ACE led Festivals round table at the end of May which explored issues experienced by this sector. We were the only outdoor event to attend but it was a useful process.
5. What will the long-term effects be and what support is needed to deal with those?
We are resilient and innovative and, with the right support and infrastructure, will survive and grow and contribute greatly to the wider socio-economic recovery. However, we are currently undertaking this unpaid and under-resourced.
Getting back to viability will be a long process. A key issue will be adapting to the new situations of social distancing, audience concerns/confidence and greater reliance on digital offers to supplement the service. Support for this new business modelling will be required in the short to medium term.
There will be a loss of skills, both in staff and volunteers. The impact of this will be on the individual organisations, and the broader eco-system of culture, much of which needs specialist skills to thrive.
The key requirement is that culture is not missed out (often by default rather than design) of any support packages for businesses. The best way of accomplishing this is to resource regional and sub-regional organisations to embed the cultural sector in the local recovery planning and schemes.
There is concern that this crisis will exacerbate existing inequalities in terms of access to cultural activity and “digital poverty “.
We will need additional resource to develop the required skills to develop new audiences, re-engage with the more cautious audiences, and develop a different business model for post-lockdown.
6. What lessons can be learned for DCMS, and arms-length bodies; and how might the sector evolve and how can the DCMS support that innovation?
The perceived hierarchy which appears to value large building based organisations over other models of working needs to be reconfigured – we are an interdependent sector.
Those of us working in the outdoor arts sector have much to share with those who have been primarily building based to this point and who are considering moving into this area about dealing with flow of audiences, capturing and engaging audiences in the outdoor space . This needs to be recognised and built on.
We will be looking at ways of sharing our expertise to help those who express interest but do not normally work outdoors. This again requires planning and time. This knowledge does not reside primarily in NPO’s and care should be taken not to equate big with better-equipped in terms of knowledge.
Communication with independent and non NPOs needs to be consistent and timely.
Advocacy of the cultural sector to other departments needs to be clear and unambiguous, Culture is part of the bigger picture – not an addon.
Independent creative Producer June 19 2020