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Libraries and Grants for the Arts

Ben Lee, programme director writes

Arts Council England have just released their latest data showing which library services have made successful applications to the ring-fenced portion of Grants for the Arts reserved for libraries. Round one of Grants for the Arts for libraries ran from 2013 until March this year, and Round two is now open and runs until 2018.

Libraries can apply for grants up to £100,000 for projects which have a clear link with the arts. The latest awards vary in size from five or six thousand pounds up to £50,000 for Worcester Library’s ‘Worcestershire Sounds’ project in which library users and artists will create audio archives of sounds from contemporary life in the county, using poetry, stories, fiction, and songs.

What has been supported in the first two years of Arts Council’s dedicated library fund and how much has been allocated? The first thing apparent in the figures is the scale of the funding. Grants have been made totalling £4.8m (for 106 individual projects) which eclipses Arts Council’s £250,000 Libraries Development Initiative as well as Enterprising Libraries which was a similar size. The only other national funding on this scale for libraries from the past five years is the £7.4m pledged in March by DCMS to upgrade WiFi in public libraries.

It goes without saying that if used smartly, Grants for the Arts for libraries has potential, in conjunction with the WiFi funding, to re-build some of the foundations of the public library sector at a time when they most need it.

In that context it is interesting to see what kinds of projects have been successful and which artforms libraries are working with. Literature unsurprisingly is the artform most frequently involved, but less predictably it is ‘combined arts’ projects (i.e. involving a mix of artforms) which account for the largest proportion of the grants awarded as shown in the graph below. This shows libraries are reaching out beyond the most obvious arts partners. But what is also notable is how few music, theatre and dance projects there have been, really tiny numbers; and no doubt any future applications from libraries which link to these artforms will be given very serious consideration by Arts Council.

GftA artform breakdown

The scale of many projects has also been very modest. Given the intense financial pressures libraries are under you might expect larger projects to be the norm, serving as stepping stones to leverage more funding and build towards bolder projects. But as our chart below shows, half the projects funded have been for less than £40,000 (the grant maximum is £100,000) and one in five were for ten thousand pounds or less. There is nothing to suggest that Arts Council are encouraging smaller projects in their pre-application advice, so perhaps libraries are simply being over-cautious.

GftA range of amounts

Either way, it will be interesting to see how the scale of ambition evolves over this new round of funding. From what we have seen in our own work with libraries, and with arts organisations across the country, the ambition and creativity is certainly there among library leaders and at the frontline too. Innovative partnerships between libraries and the arts are also growing. But over the coming months will this be converted into bolder proposals for funding from Grants for the Arts for libraries which in turn can become platforms for something bigger still? If reading this, you have a bolder idea you’d like help working up, or need to build a partnership around, then please do get in touch.


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