Agenda item


(Councillor Nic Bhranair in the Chair.)


Future of Cultural Multi Annual Grants (CMAG)


            The Committee was reminded that, at its meeting in August 2019, a new ten-year cultural strategy for Belfast, A City Imagining, had been agreed. As part of this strategy a new investment approach was approved including phased implementation of new funding programmes. Similar to the Belfast Agenda, the recommended investment model for culture proposed a new partnership approach to supporting the cultural sector, with the aim of sustaining and developing accessible cultural activity and infrastructure across Belfast. This investment was central to creating positive cultural, social and economic impacts for the city, delivering on our overall targets for the period, positioning Belfast as a regional driver, and creating the conditions for long-term transformation.


The first phased implementation of the cultural investment model commenced with the opening of a competitive funding programme for cultural multi-annual grants for the period April 2020 to March 2024. It was agreed that these multi-annual grants would cover two main areas:


·        Arts and heritage organisations, which had a year-round programme of cultural activity (Anchor four-year grants and enable two-year grants); and

·        Festivals and events organisations, which had a festival or event with an audience of 65,000 or more (Imagine four-year grants), or an audience of 10,000 or more (Activate two-year grants) by end of grant period. 


            The Director of Economic Development advised that, in advance of the new financial year in April 2024, it was planned to launch CMAG in August 2023 with approval of awards and contracts by March 2023.  He outlined the following summary of the timeline:


     Open call for application submissions – early August 2023

     Information sessions for applicants – August 2023

     Submission deadline for application – September/October 2023

     Eligibility check, scoring, officer assessment and independent

      assessment – October to December 2023

     Committee Approval of awards - January 2024

     Council Ratification approval of awards - February 2024


Similar to other grants, Cultural Multi-Annual Grants would be advertised widely and assessments would be made, and scoring applied under three key areas of criteria:


·        Quality of programme: this included their vision, content, audience experience and marketing and audience development;

·        Impact of activity:  this included how the programme contributed to the four strategic themes (A City Belonging, A City Challenging, A City Creating and A City Exploring) and how they will monitor and evaluate that impact; and

·        Readiness for investment:  this included planning, financial management, staff, governance, and environmental impact.


            The Director of Economic Development provided an overview of the Principles of the Assessment Process, together with the findings of the review of the current scheme. He highlighted that detailed feedback across each area was available in Appendix 1. 


He summarised the recommendations from the review, and pointed out that the report highlighted a range of recommendations intended to further enhance the grant process, impact and evaluation, namely:


Relationship management and support


·        The report highlighted the importance of one-to-one relationship management, stating that ‘staff in BCC should also be supported to take on a more developmental role, including training, time to develop relationships and time in lieu to attend funding events and activities.’.  Whilst much of this developmental work was impacted by the pandemic and staff changes in the Culture Unit, the importance of relationship management had been reflected in the new structure of the culture team and its corresponding workplans. 


·        Respondents also reflected the importance of wraparound support, particularly on areas such as accessibility and environmental sustainability. This support, including establishing a Green Arts Forum and a partnership with the University of Atypical to train disability champions, had been reflected in the Culture Workplan 23-24 which was agreed by members in the April 2023 Committee.


·        Several respondents also indicated their desire to build relationships with Councillors.  To address this need, officers would explore options for information and networking sessions between CMAG clients and members.


Eligibility criteria


·        Arts and heritage eligibility criteria, including audience and turnover were based on historic baselines. However, the impact of the pandemic had created peaks and troughs and recent baselines were no longer robust. It was therefore recommended that arts and heritage organisations be  allowed to base their application on projections (as per festivals and events applicants) with the caveat that historic performance would be used to assess whether projections were realistic. 


·        Similarly, the pandemic had had an impact on audience numbers over the previous three years.  It was recommended that the Council analyse recent monitoring returns to consider whether audience eligibility criteria was still appropriate. 


·        It was recommended that the Council should consider removing the requirement for a minimum number of volunteers. Instead, it should ensure that it was satisfied that volunteering was considered within the assessment criteria as an indicator of A City Belonging, Challenging or Creating. 


Duration and level of funding


·        To manage expectations, the Council should agree in advance whether applicants could expect a significant change in funding or should request an incremental increase or standstill and communicate this to applicants. The Council should also consider telling applicants the average value of grants made in the first round and the number and value of grants it intended to make in the second cycle.


·        The report stated that Council should consider awarding all grants on a four-year basis, subject to developing a longer-term project fund of scale that could support new and emerging organisations.  Officers were mindful of this feedback and the desire for longer term funding from across the sector.  However, such a material change to the scheme would require extensive screening and consultation and would be considered for any subsequent reviews of CMAG. 


·        The report recommended that the Council should review existing project funding with a view to introducing a longer-term project fund of scale that would reduce pressure on CMAG and help support a diverse ecosystem. Officials would all engage with the sector to investigate opportunities for dynamic and longer-term project funding. 


Application process, evaluation and monitoring


·        The report identified the need to provide support for applicants through information sessions and advice clinics, alongside clear consistent messaging to ensure that all applicants understand the purpose of the fund. These information sessions had been built into the planned rollout of the programme alongside a communications plan to announce the dates of opening and closing the grant as far in advance as possible. A more enhanced evaluation process, in consultation with grantees, would be implemented to enable evidence to be collected throughout the next four-year cycle. 


·        Many respondents across all sectors recommended that the Council should change the names of the funds. It was recommended to change the name of the funds to refer to them by their descriptors (For example: four-year arts and heritage, two-year festivals).


Assessment process


·        There were several recommendations relating to the assessment process, including providing applicants with more detail on the assessment process and criteria, using external subject matter expertise to assess at least Imagine applications, providing training to new assessors and reviewing the application form should be reviewed to identify any questions or attachments (such as board minutes) that could be removed or made only applicable to four-year applicants.  It was also recommended that the administration of all grants should be migrated back to Central Grants Unit. All of these recommendations would be incorporated into the planned rollout of the programme. 




·        The Council should consider how it would support any existing Imagine or Anchor client that applies unsuccessfully in the second cycle. However, it was not recommended that the Council provides a formal scheme such as Transition. Rather, given the variance in Anchor awards in particular, this should be done on a case-by-case basis.


            In relation to Pathfinder for 2023/24, the Director of Economic Development explained that, in February 2022, £79,768 had been agreed in relation to four Pathfinder grants which had been designed to address a specific gap in funding.  Members had agreed that awards were extended for a further two years from 2022-24. The programme was designed to support those organisations that had a specific development need and were currently not in a position to drawdown core funding from the public sector. Based on monitoring of these awards to date, agreement was sought to continue this scheme for the second of the two years in line with the portfolio of two-year Cultural Multi-Annual Grants 2022-2024. 


            He advised that, given that the establishment and future of Pathfinder was directly related to CMAG, officials would continue to assess whether the scheme was still applicable during and after the rollout of CMAG.  Recommendations on whether to continue the scheme beyond 2024 would be brought to the Committee for consideration in late 2023. 


            He pointed out that there were no new financial commitments relating to Cultural Multi Annual Grants and would be met with existing departmental budgets for 2023-24. An allocation of £79,768.00 would be made in 2023/24 year to extend the Pathfinder Awards and again this would be met from existing departmental budgets.


After discussion, the Committee:


·        Noted the contents of the report and agreed to open cultural multi-annual grants in August 2023 for Arts and Heritage organisations and Events and Festivals for funding from 1 April 2024 and 31 March 2028, subject to final recommendations being agreed by Committee in January 2024; and


·        Approved the continuation of the Pathfinder Awards in 2023/24.


Supporting documents: