TaitMail Lessons from St John’s Smith Square: that six legs are better than three

The shell burst last weekend was the loudest culture bang to go off since ENO lost a large hunk of its subsidy three years ago and threatened to go dark if its new business plan didn’t work. St John’s Smith Square isn’t the Coliseum, but it not being there would leave a large hole in a lot of people’s musical lives.  

And, if its chairman’s words are anything to go by, this time next year it might not be there, celebrating its 50thanniversary by closing despite a near record box office year. 

It would close, as might dozens of other venues, because the arts funding system that we used to be so proud of is doesn't work anymore. “I will not hesitate to close the place down if I don’t think in the middle of next year that we have been able to develop a funding model which is sustainable, that is to say without having to back to the same people over and over again” the chairman, Martin Smith, told AI. 

Smith is not just another music loving hedge funder drafted in from the corporate sector. He’s a serial financial advisor in the creative and cultural industry, principally at Goldsmiths and its Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship, and at Ingenious, the largest independent investor in the cultural economy. He also runs his own consulting company, West Bridge. 

So he has launched an appeal looking for £5m, but urgently £250,000 in the next 12 months. SJSS costs about £1.2m a year to keep operating and earns and raises around £800,000. The writing has been on the wall for some time: for four of the last five years it has made up the shortfall by ringing round “the usual suspects” – individual rich music lovers, trusts and foundations – but last year it didn't work, falling £100,000 short, and he has had to plunder the reserves. He can’t do it again. 

The response since Smith announced the situation via Richard Morrison’s column in The Times last Friday and AI’s piece on Tuesday has been such that he probably won’t have to close, this time, but the old funding model that kept SJSS alive for half a century – the famous “three-legged stool” of earning, subsidy and fundraising – has gone skewiff. SJSS has never had the generous Arts Council revenue funding that ENO has had, but project funding helped.  

Generally, subsidy has fallen away, down more than 30% since 2011, and corporate sponsorship, once a major prop to arts projects and events, has effectively ceased since the 2008 crash. The financial support is now a one-and-a-half legged stool and it needs redesigning. 

Martin Smith has had a bad scare, and the same scare is being experienced all over the country. His venue is in London where 90% of the UK’s private arts funding is, but those sources are suffering overload, while funding authorities like ACE have been scared off from offering support in the capital in case it's seen as being at the cost of the regions.  

He, and every other arts organisation, is looking for a newly designed stool, perhaps one with more than three legs to make it more stable. One of those legs could be municipal authorities, city and town, who can no longer hope to foot the entire arts bill they once did, but might go shares with, say, a network of private individuals, of trusts and foundations, of national subsidy, of lottery support and of a gingered up corporate sector. I make that six legs, which must be better than three. Is Martin Smith

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