29 May 2020

A message from the Director: update on our new work

UK Branch Director Andrew Barnett discusses our new work on climate action and the civic role of the arts

Trusts and foundations are thinking hard about how best to respond to the times we live in; some are administering emergency funds. We’ve already flexed agreements with our partners and in some cases are providing extra funding. But we’re not changing our strategy. We are doubling down. Greenhouse gas emissions – and the effect of this on the health of our over exploited ocean – may have subsided temporarily but meeting targets is proving elusive with consequences yet more catastrophic than the current pandemic. The power of story – and the need for creativity – cannot be underestimated and the potential for arts organisations to act with “civic responsibility” feels greater now than before.

Specifically, we have a number of initiatives we want to give you early notice of:

  • our evolving work on how we frame the need to act towards reducing significantly and quickly carbon emissions;
  • the research we have supported into the UK’s large international development sector – overlooked in recent months – and how these organisations can adapt for greater impact;
  • and a new initiative to acknowledge the great work of arts organisations responding imaginatively to the current crisis.

Acting where we’re best placed

Some see this as a time of opportunity: to lean into the change. I get that, but it’s not so much an opportunity – with its jarring positivity – as acting where we’re best placed, applying the lens that the pandemic requires to existing plans, and acting flexibly in working towards existing goals.

Let’s not overlook the immediate challenges: trauma faced by people grieving, uncertain about the future. Whether those who have lost loved ones, feel trapped in lockdown unsure how to pay the bills, or key workers putting their own lives at risk, this shakes our preconceptions about society. I fear that existing divides between those of us with relative privilege and others will be prized open as never before. I think of people with precarious jobs and low or no income, people from particular communities most affected, older people shielding themselves from grandchildren whose prospects have narrowed if not nose-dived. The crisis draws into question the blurred boundaries between the state, the private sector, and a civil society – stretched but I hope also emboldened. We need renewed clarity as to what is best done locally, nationally, and internationally: the right action at every level.

We’ve been clear that as a small operation in the UK, we are not well-placed to provide emergency support. What we can do is look forward and help our partners to imagine the changed context within which they now operate and support them to achieve shared long-term ambitions. Previous predictions remain largely unchanged; the pace of change will quicken, and those who embrace agility will thrive in the future.

Thinking globally

A glimmer of hope lies in the opportunity to build on the solidarity between people that this crisis has unleashed. Let’s not pit people against planet. I will be writing in the next newsletter about our work on climate action on which we’ve chosen to focus as we seek to benefit people in the UK and internationally. This is central to our strategy and plays to obvious need, our strengths, history, and our founder’s story. That his businesses spanned the globe was not just a mark of his ambition but revealed a desire that we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world with responsibilities beyond the sometimes inward-looking instincts of nation states.

In thinking through how to extend our reach, and embody our founder’s values, we undertook a year-long scoping. This included supporting BOND, the umbrella organisation for international development organisations in the UK who are significant actors in the world. We wanted to support them in understanding the challenges facing members, many working in fragile geographies, and the future role BOND might adopt going forward. The report of this work will be published soon, and we’ll keep you updated. That climate change is up there as one of the sector’s challenges is no surprise. How we all talk about it will be critical if we are to gain the traction for difficult choices: from a public for whom climate change is not always a high priority and from the politicians who take their lead from them.

Reimagining the civic role

Finally, we will soon be announcing that we will be seeking proposals from arts organisations responding imaginatively to the Coronavirus. We know times are incredibly tough but we want to acknowledge how they can connect more, and more creatively, with the communities they serve. There are great examples of organisations rising to the Arts Council’s strategic challenge: Let’s Create. We will be showcasing them with three awards: one of £100,000 and two of £25,000. The funds will enable the successful organisations to embed and share the learning. We will announce more details next month with a view to a panel including people drawn from diverse walks of life recommending which organisations will most benefit from funding and how their lessons can benefit others. We expect to make the awards in early 2021.

We want to announce that we are funding a new programme developed by and for cultural leaders, delivered by people make it work, that will be live within weeks, and which will support 200 members of the cultural sector to refresh their skills and develop and test rapid creative responses for the new economic and social landscape ahead. Those taking up places can return to leadership roles equipped with insights and inspiration to champion the importance of organisations taking their civic responsibilities seriously.

We are also supporting a new research study from Common Vision, examining how arts and cultural organisations of various sizes are responding and adapting to the COVID context. The project will seek to draw out insights into how arts organisations are using this time to strengthen their civic purpose.

Taking a longer-term view

Now is not the time to underplay the real problems people across the world are facing. The vulnerable are at yet greater risk and we have a duty to listen and prioritise their interests. Trusts and foundations have an important role here and a unique vantage point in taking a longer-term view of a better world for all. Here’s hoping that we can play our part as best we can. If we are really to help foster coalitions to tackle some of the world’s complex problems, as we’ve set out at the UK Branch to do, we’ll need your help and we will keep you informed as our plans develop.