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Alan Grieve of the Jerwood Foundation: crisis in the arts?

4 January 2014 | Charlie Kenber

“It’s our human nature: you help your fellow man, you don’t kick him. This is all an expression of it. That’s what we’re about.”

Despite Culture Minister Ed Vaizey declaring in March that far from being in crisis the arts are in “rude health,” it is clear that austerity has had a major impact on the sector.

Campaigns such as My Theatre Matters! are clearly indicative of this problem. Supported by such names as Sir Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren and Mark Rylance, the campaign’s support of the important role of theatres in communities is a direct response to local council cuts, and councillors who can tend to see the arts as something of an easy target.

In times such as these many in the creative industries rely more heavily on philanthropic organisations to source the funding they need. One of the most visible, the Jerwood Foundation, was set up in 1977 by international merchant John Jerwood. A personal friend, Alan Grieve has maintained the Foundation’s work since John’s death in 1991, and it continues to do all it can to support visual and performing arts in the UK. Most notably its grants have supported: the Jerwood Theatres at the Royal Court, the Jerwood Space in Southwark, the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings (which houses the Jerwood Collection), as well as the Jerwood Painting Prize and many smaller-scale philanthropic investments.

So are the arts actually in crisis? Alan tells me, “I think crisis is a pretty strong word. I think the arts world needs to and is facing the realities.” He suggests the arts have had something of a rude awakening, “a reality check is almost inevitable because a lot of people have been floating on the surface. Unless you’ve got your roots and you’ve got your support from the local catchment, and they want you and they like what you do then they’ll support you and help you. It’s a difficult situation but I think that now the arts world are fully alert to it.”

The tightening of budgets has unsurprisingly created a need for arts organisations to manage their finances as effectively as possible. Alan continues, “I like the expression ‘arts business’. It should be run on that principle that art comes first, but it must be business-savvy. That’s very much the Jerwood philosophy.” This primacy of creativity is crucial, “it’s got to have passion. If you get that right, as well as arts business, you’re probably not going to go far wrong.” Cuts have even directly affected the Foundation, which moved out of its Fitzroy Square home two years ago in exchange for a much smaller, economical office in Westbourne Park. “We tightened our belt. We don’t like people to think we’re just sitting back.”

Philanthropy remains a key part of what keeps the arts in business, but it’s far from a new concept. “It started with the Victorians,” Alan tells me, “with the V&A, or the Tate (Tate & Lyle Sugar), or Leverhulme which is soap (Unilever). They wanted social acceptance, but they also wanted to put back into society.” This very much remains today, “it’s our human nature: you help your fellow man, you don’t kick him. This is all an expression of it. That’s what we’re about. I think there’s a deep feeling of wanting to do right by your fellow man. So I don’t think the arts is a lost cause at all, quite the reverse.”

Private philanthropy then necessarily continues to play an important role – an assumption that is built into the day-to-day running of the Jerwood Space. “It’s the most sought after rehearsal space in London…it’s one of the best if not the best” Alan says. “It works on a Robin Hood principle which I evolved, that if we can get a balance between commercial usage (Lion King, Billy Elliot etc.) and they pay commercial rates for the rehearsal room, then we can let other companies come in at less than commercial.”

With so much art in need of help, it can be hard to choose where best to invest: although Alan is no longer solely responsible for attributing grants, he continues to run the Foundation in John’s honour. “I set myself a mission statement, but it was never set in stone, probably for two reasons: I think it can tie your hands, and we were in a developing and changing world. I think one of the strengths of Jerwood has been its flexibility and its ability to decide quickly. I report to the council…but I have had a lot of freedom. I always try to make decisions as if John Jerwood was here, standing behind me.”

A report last year claimed that regional organisations receive per resident a fifth of the public funds allocated to London. Although flawed (it failed to take into account for example touring companies based in London), it highlights a real problem – one that Jerwood tries to counter. Grants for the Foundation’s library in Cambridge, DanceEast in Ipswich and most notably the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings are part of an attempt to regenerate regions in need.

“In February we are going to put the whole of the Jerwood Collection on show which has never been on show before. Now that’s a pretty good reason to go to Hastings, Alan explains. “It’s out of London, it’s completely regional. We are not serving a London catchment; we are serving a Sussex, Kent catchment. We’re regenerating that south coast.”

Despite the economic downturn it’s very much business as usual for the Jerwood Foundation, in its support of the very best arts the country has to offer. “The one word that personifies the whole of Jerwood is excellence,” Alan concludes, “we seek out excellence in the institution and in the individual.” Alan is also positive about the future for the arts as a whole. “I think the lessons will be learnt,” he says. “You’ve only got to look at what’s happened with the National Theatre, with Nicholas Hytner’s period there: they are business-savvy, very much so. It’s about good management – there’s nothing clever about that!”

The reality, however, remains to be seen.

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