The Importance of Scalable, Responsive Funding for Arts Organizations

Thursday, September 15, 2016

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I am the co-founder of a relatively new arts organization in Saskatchewan. In 2010, while studying printmaking at the University of Regina, I co-founded the city’s only publicly accessible printmaking studio, Articulate Ink. Articulate Ink was born out of the need for a studio for artists working in print media to continue their practice outside of the university studio. When the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance asked me to write an op-ed piece about the importance of scalable, responsive funding for emerging arts organizations from the perspective of the co-founder of an emerging arts organization, I jumped at the chance to spark some discussion and the following is a summation of my experiences of the first five years of navigating arts funding in Saskatchewan and why I think scalable, responsive funding for arts organizations is important.

First off, it seems relevant to define what I mean by “scalable, responsive funding for arts organizations”? For me, this means creating a funding environment for arts organizations that accommodates the “life cycle” of an organization. It means creating a system that not only allows new organizations to enter into the funding system, but also allows established and emerging organizations that are already in the system to grow in a sustainable way. It means creating a system that allows for change, innovation and risk taking. It means creating a funding system that recognizes the amount of time required for administration within an arts organization and the importance of paying those who do that work fairly.

Throughout the course of the last five years, Articulate Ink has seen success as an arts organization, a printmaking studio and a social enterprise. The social enterprise aspect of our venture has been one of the interesting, unanticipated outcomes of starting the studio. While we were busy building our facilities and non-profit organization, we also, out of financial necessity, started a niche commercial printing business which now operates within the non-profit organization and funds approximately 90% of our overall operations.

I believe that without the commercial printing component of our organizational model, we wouldn’t have made it to our five-year anniversary. There is no way that we would have been able to survive as an organization without our self-generated revenue and this raises some issues in my mind, because as printmakers, we are fortunate to work in a medium that lends itself to enterprise. We can, and do, print thousands of t-shirts, posters, business cards, album covers etc… for various clients, many of whom are other artists, non-profit organizations or small businesses. But what about arts organizations that don’t conveniently have a built in self-generating revenue component to their model as we do?

How are organizations like these supposed to exist, thrive and grow in a closed funding system? Should revenue generation be a focus of all arts organizations? I think not. I often think of how different Articulate Ink might be if we didn’t have to focus so strongly on making money with commercial work to keep our doors open and we could focus more on our artistic practices, teaching and the pursuit of artistic excellence…

At this juncture, I think it is pertinent to mention that even now, after five years of operation, nearly all of the administrative work required for Articulate Ink to operate is still done on a volunteer basis. All of the coordination, bookkeeping, grant writing, member relations and other administrative tasks are unpaid. We have not yet been able to secure enough operational funding to pay an administrator even on a part-time basis. To say that this has been frustrating is an understatement. A lack of resources to dedicate to the administration of the organization has been our number one challenge and something that we continue to struggle with to date.

However, Articulate Ink is very fortunate that in our early years we were able to secure a small, annual operational grant (approximately $10,000.00) through the Saskatchewan Arts Board (SAB) Professional Arts Organization Program (PAOP). While this annual operational funding was not enough to pay anyone even a part-time wage, it was invaluable to our studio’s early and continued success. Eventually though, we began to run into funding frustrations when we would request reasonable, incremental increases in our annual application (allocated mostly to administrative expenses) and despite high ratings from the juries and positive feedback, we would continue to get the same amount of money, and eventually, even less money than we had received in our first year, even though the impact, reach and capacity of our organization had increased over time and could have undoubtedly benefitted from more financial resources for our operations. 

In 2016, the SAB put their PAOP program under review and for the past year staff has been diligently redesigning the program in consultation with the clients it serves and it will re-launch in January 2017. The SAB recognized that there were historical inequities in the program, meaning that there were many organizations that had been in the program for several years who were receiving a large percent of the finite funds allotted to the program, which left a very small amount for organizations that were new to the program and even less for those who might hope to enter in the future.

Having participated in the SAB’s consultations and the recent release of the draft of the new PAOP program, I must say that I am impressed and hopeful. The proposed changes include new streams, categorizations, minimum funding levels and more. I strongly believe that the SAB has the best interests of the arts community in mind, especially in regards to equity for new and emerging arts organizations. 

However, for me, the entire PAOP review process has been a catalyst for the striking realization that we, as an arts community are often nervously skirting around the real issue, which is that we have a vibrant, growing arts community to support in Saskatchewan and a finite, shrinking pool of money to fund it.

Recently, at a meeting where the SAB presented the proposed changes to the PAOP program, an important question was raised and that was “How does the SAB intend to support emerging organizations, bring currently funded organizations up to guaranteed minimum levels, while also still providing stability to current clients with current funding levels?" The answer given was disheartening but illuminating - without increased funding in the future it is possible that new organizations may not be accepted into the program at all. Now, I don’t want to be alarmist, but this has serious, scary implications.

As a member of the arts community of Saskatchewan, I believe in innovation, growth and opportunity for new people and ideas, so to hear that these values might be compromised for emerging organizations, administrators and artists due to a lack of funding is simply discouraging.

While I think that the SAB program reviews are moving in a progressive direction, sadly, I believe that no matter how many changes are made to funding programs, it is plain to see that most of the issues faced by Saskatchewan arts organizations could be resolved by increased funding to the arts at all levels, municipal, provincial and federal.

Of course, I know what you might be thinking at this point - “More money, that is always the easy answer to any problem, what a cop out!” But it is true, right now I believe that it is the answer, but not necessarily an obvious or easy one. Attaining increased funding for the arts in Saskatchewan is undoubtedly a long-term, ongoing challenge, one that anyone who values the arts should not stop advocating for.

Creating a scalable, responsive funding for arts organizations to flourish in our province is crucial to our continued artistic growth, development and pursuit of artistic excellence. I believe that creating this type of funding situation is completely achievable. A reasonable first step could even be establishing a guaranteed base level of funding for the SAB and then having that amount adjusted annually in correlation with a cost of living increase.

I’ve presented one, small idea above to move forward, but I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. Even though Articulate Ink has seen much success over the past five years, I believe that if we would have been founded in a funding climate that had allowed for our sustainable growth and supported our operational needs, (i.e. the ability to hire a paid staff person to run the organization), we would be much further ahead as an organization than we are today.

Now, I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas for building scalable, responsive funding systems for arts organizations in Saskatchewan to flourish. Together, we must advocate on all levels for sustainable arts funding systems that nurture innovation and can help arts organizations to grow and find their place and role within the arts ecology of Saskatchewan.



Michelle Brownridge

Michelle Brownridge is a visual artist, arts administrator and freelance communications consultant from Regina, SK. She graduated from the University of Regina in 2010 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (Honours) in Print Media.

Upon graduation, Brownridge co-founded Regina’s only publicly accessible printmaking studio, Articulate Ink, and later in 2015, the Saskatchewan Printmakers Association. She maintains an active artistic printmaking practice in addition to her freelance work.

In 2012, Brownridge began work as the Communications Coordinator at SaskCulture where she coordinated the implementation of SaskCulture’s online strategy, which included web site maintenance and development, as well as social media strategy development and implementation.

In November 2015, Brownridge left her role as Communications Coordinator at SaskCulture to pursue a freelance communications career which has included web development, social media strategy and implementation, communications planning, event production, media relations, graphic design, photography/videography as well as teaching workshops for non-profits and artists in communications and social media.

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