An open letter to all non-NPOs: sometimes it pays not to be funded

David Byrne of the New Diorama Theatre, wrote an open letter in response to the latest NPO funding round. It’s one of the most positive, refreshing and exciting letters I have ever seen about arts funding, and I think it’s worth preserving for posterity. The letter was published in The Guardian, but here is the text in full:

Watching the Arts Council’s funding announcements, celebrations and commiserations fizz on my Twitter timeline last week, I was reminded of a panel I sat on just a year ago. I was next to an artistic director of a very well-subsidised London theatre who said the line that I’d heard many times before: “If our NPO grant, our Arts Council subsidy, gets cut, salami sliced any further, we will no longer be able to afford to take risks.”

Now, you run a small arts organisation, or you’re an artist, or a small theatre, or an emerging theatre company, and you know that if it’s something you can afford, it isn’t really a risk. Without any safety net, the risks we take mean the difference between staying open and having to close; the difference between being able to afford our rents or not. However, there is glory and excitement in this, and such potential.

You know the big risks we take can reap big rewards. If you’ve ever worked in artist development, or supported others, you know that it’s always the poorest artists who seem to make the most spectacular work that demands attention. Whereas, alas, the rich offspring of accountants and lawyers, with their fully-funded pre-packed ideas always leave so much to be desired (oh, how easy life would be if it were the other way around).

The country needs these bigger, funded institutions, the grandparents of our sector, but it also needs us. This is a call to arms: non-NPOs, or those on small grants who are feeling disappointed and limited, let’s use the next three years, harnessing our flexibility, our nimble panache and all our resourcefulness to do something truly spectacular. Let’s make work that these bigger companies, with their rigid plans and reporting targets, could only dream of making.

While they try to formulate sustainability matrices or express in 200 words how their work fits into the “wider ecology”, let us make brilliant one-off pieces of art and dazzling performances that are unwieldy and mad and bold, but will glitter in the memories of those who see them for years to come. Away from formal structures, let us continue to reinvent the way the way art can be made and imagined.

We didn’t apply for this round of NPO funding, wanting to achieve just these things.

So what’s the first step? We must change perception. Looking at my timeline yesterday, the comments being made seemed to suggest that we see NPO funding as being an official stamp of approval – something that gives an organisation self-esteem. We must not see it like that and I’m certain the Arts Council don’t want us to.

Yes, there will be hard and frustrating times. Yes, we’ll have to raise the money and we’ll need to be creative to do it, but being creative is what we’re best at.

For these next three years our futures have not been written. Let’s do our best work. Let’s show them how it’s done.

David Byrne
Artistic and Executive Director
New Diorama Theatre

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