Supporting artists' livelihoods

A group of arts funders took urgent action in the pandemic, thanks to Jerwood Arts' specialist capabilities to fund individual artists.

Lilli Geissendorfer
Director, Jerwood Arts

The Live Work Fund brought together several trusts and foundations to support artists whose livelihoods were threatened by Covid-19. These funders’ apparent differences became their collective strength.

When the pandemic hit, we revisited our values. We wanted to come up with a response that was reactive to the context but still absolutely aligned with our core mission. 

We faced an unprecedented sense of urgency, particularly because many of our beneficiaries are freelance theatre makers, music creators, choreographers and artists who perform live. Every bit of their work stopped dead in March 2020. 

Most emergency arts funding out there was micro-grants of between £500 and £1,000, which is fine to tide someone over for a month or two. But it became clear that the restrictions around gathering and social distancing were going to create a long-term problem for those who rely on live performance. We decided we wanted to do something that was at the other end of the scale. As a small independent foundation, with a spend of around £1m of our own funds each year, we realised we couldn't put a meaningful enough sum into a fund on our own. Our size, however, does mean we can be nimble and flexible. 

During a Zoom call with the Arts Funders Group – something that became a lifeline during Covid-19 – I proposed some of us work together on a major funding initiative for individuals whose work relies on live performance. The Wolfson Foundation were first to respond. Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Linbury Trust soon joined us. 

It wasn’t an obvious match. At Jerwood Arts, we fund individuals as part of our mission, whereas Wolfson is largely a capital funder, and Esmée and Linbury primarily fund organisations. However, our differences were our strengths: while we have the structures in place to manage and deliver a programme targeted at freelancers, the others had the funding. Their trustees absolutely recognised the need and wanted to do something about it, which created a powerful shared mission. 

There’s huge value in having a diversity of funders with different aims and ways of doing things. But there's also something really valuable about funders recognising where we do align and have a shared interest or ambition.

A portrait photo of the author
Lilli Geissendorfer
Director, Jerwood Arts

Aligning aims

As it became clear just how long the pandemic might go on, we knew the fund would need to provide some financial security for artists. Firstly, so they could just breathe and take stock. But also, so they could be at the forefront when society reopened, coming back with fresh approaches and new creative energy. 

The resulting Live Work Fund was designed to help prevent exceptional talent of all backgrounds abandoning the development of their practice due to the pandemic and create the space for reflection and experimentation. The Live Work Fund is a deliberate play on words – ‘live’ as in live performance, but also ‘live’ as in the funds people need to live on. Essentially, it’s core funding but for individuals, rather than organisations. 

The other funders had told us from the start that they were keen to be hands off, but would be there whenever they were needed. This strong sense of trust allowed us to move things along very quickly. We had the fund set up and distributed in less than six months. 

We’re now supporting 33 exceptional individuals over 12 months with awards of £20,000 to adapt their approach to making and sharing live work. They include performers, makers, producers, composers, poets, sound artists and musicians of all kinds, from a string quartet to a grime artist. 

I’d love to work in collaboration like this again, bringing together funders to act quickly and decisively on a shared mission. We spend a lot of time trying to stand out and differentiate ourselves. Yes, there’s huge value in having a diversity of funders with different aims and ways of doing things. But there's also something really valuable about funders recognising where we do align and have a shared interest or ambition. That might be around a specific art form or a specific way of funding organisations or individuals. 

The Live Work Fund has shown me that there’s a lot to be achieved by collaborating flexibly with organisations that, on paper, may not look like an obvious fit.

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Trust & Foundation News, the quarterly magazine for Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) members. Find out more about ACF membership.

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