The song and the dance

A short rant about applying for funding in the cultural field.

I have been in the business of writing funding applications for cultural projects ever since I started working, in 1999. As a musicologist with an MA degree I naturally didn’t expect to find any work whatsoever so I was happy to get a job as a secretary for an institution in the field of culture education. I learned a great deal during those two years that I worked there: how to fax, how to not handle sensitive political situations between secretaries in the workplace, how to recognise depression in a co-worker, how to file, how to never remember coffee orders from ‘superiors’ because that will put you in the position of always getting everyone’s coffee, how to piss people off and how to walk into a hostile environment between co-workers and shimmy your way out again. I also learned how to write funding applications: by writing them. I got basic instructions and loads of feedback from my ‘boss’. It was the best funding application writing school anyone could wish for. It also introduced me to the value of bullshit.

You see, funding applications are shows.

They are performances, like plays or musicals, that show some of the story that needs telling, along with all the glamour and harmonic progress that the audiences love so much. After all, the nazi occupation of Austria (Anschluss) is much better to digest when presented with hills that are alive with the sound of music. Right? Right. In the end the audience gets the threat of nazi occupation, up to when whats-his-name blows the whistle on the whole lot, and witnesses Maria become a Von Trapp along the way. Wheee! Let’s give those people some money.

In reality, very few native Austrians spend their afternoons dancing around on mountain pastures. I cannot back this up with data, I am sorry, but I know some mountain pastures and they’re bitching hard to reach places that are often cold and damp and – especially when there’s livestock in the area – infested with horseflies that will puncture all the way through your friggin’ dirndl dress to get to your sweet, sweet bloodstream. You think of some of your favourite things while your legs swell up like a forest floor in mushroom season.

Yeah, I don’t want to read about that either. But it’s there.

Now, leaving the nazi’s aside (I don’t want to go all Godwin on you), I do think that what the funding landscape needs is a bit more realism. What we need is not great and ambitious plans – well no, we do need those. What we do NOT need is great and ambitious plans that we know cannot realise just because the funding body asked for them. You want youth empowerment? Got it! You want young people to stop developing fundamentalist ideas? Got it! You want a €500,000 project for €50,000? No problem! It’s like we’re on board of the old-time Enterprise and we need another miracle. But we’re not mechanics, dammit Jim, we’re people! Real, passionate, professional, hard-working people. With ideas and experience and networks and projects that will make the hearts pound of everyone involved. What we do not have is ‘products’ that cost less than they yield. We do not have profits. At the very best we have activities that will not make us go bankrupt just yet. We have audiences that love us. And, contrary to common belief, we have clients with money: that would be you, funding bodies. You are the ones that pay so audiences and participants get to experience what it’s like to be wholly human.

Public and private funding should not be not begging for money. It should not be putting on a show to razzle-dazzle the commission. It should be more than that; it should be an understanding by both the funding body and the executive party that there is a real problem (or there will be) and that we need to find ways to do something about it. Funding applications that conceal what is happening, or understate or exaggerate, are counter-productive. We need to stop the singing and dancing for money (unless we work in bars, granted) and explain that we’re worth our salt. Because we are. That is why you are our clients.

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