Sustaining the arts in a harsh climate
Quality on a budget
In an ideal world you would only embark on projects where there is sufficient funds available. This guide by Rod McIntosh outlines an approach to finding workable compromises whilst maintaining quality for times when money is tight.
In an ideal world you would only embark on projects where there is sufficient if not a surplus of funds available. In reality you are wise to review and manage the work you take on with a degree of pragmatism.
We know things cost more than are budgeted for. Therefore it is prudent and good practice to think ahead of financial ambiguities than to have to dig deep to solve them, often out of your own pocket, in the moment.
This practical guide intends to give some thought and structure to approaching all projects that you embark on and suggest workable compromises to affect the highest quality when and where the money might be less available.
You may not be able to ask for blank cheques but you can plan to be more effective with your monies.
Assuming value for money
Assessment of realism is one of the criteria you should use to address your initial selection of interest in a project. Seeing if there is a budget for what needs to be done should conclude for you whether to apply or not.
With restricted funds you may still choose to apply, compensating for the lack of money with strategies from your previous experiences. Maybe it will be this that gets you the job your ability to deliver a quality service on a tight budget. But at what cost to yourself?
Contributing materials from your studio to the project
Documenting the process with your camera and resources
Attending meetings that are not planned or paid for
Concluding the evaluation in your own time
Running one more workshop than you are paid for, to boost numbers
Your materials, your knowledge and your time all have a cost.
The challenge is to question the assumption that you are content to continue this hidden economy of matched funding from the artist. Are you in a position to be making such financial contributions, subsidising the budget? It is not admissible as in kind matched funding, so why contribute to it?
Do not trade on your reputation of doing more than you are paid for to get the job done.
Quality has a cost
It is a combination of our experiences and an immediate gut, head and heart reaction that tells us whether a project is doable. Trust yourself to question, to challenge and change the parameters within which you work successfully.
Good work does not go unnoticed, but it is easier to spot a lessthanbest project. It is in your own interest to engage with work that exemplifies your skills and abilities to the optimum. Settling for work where the finances pose potential threats can be seen as self-sacrificial.
Threats to the quality of the outcome (work), the quality of the experience for the participants/audience and for yourself impact on the quality of your reputation.
I dont mind giving more, its a great opportunity for me'
From this Ill get more work.
These are familiar answers from artists explaining the reasons why they are compensating for a lack of sufficient funds to pay for the satisfactory completion of a project.
It is the responsibility of the purchaser of your skills/services to pay for you or to find the funds to pay for you. Qualify to them that quality outcomes need quality resources, funding and support.
If the money is not there what can be done?
Establishing core values
In engineering any changes to a project, it is critical that all parties share a common understanding of the vision and know that this is not what is changing. Fully appreciating the aims and objectives and motivating forces behind the brief is essential in revealing the bare bones. Taking it back to the spirit and tick box elements that need to be covered to warrant success enables you to flesh it out appropriately.
There will be several opinions on this according to the number of stakeholders, commissioners, funders, participants and yourself. Keeping them all motivated and engaged in the process is about good clear communication.
Engage all perspectives by naming, listing and prioritising their needs. Seek common ground, where desires and outcomes match. This is what you must deliver to first. Additional values will also be met and identifying this where it happens is beneficial to your case. From this you can step forward to look at the dimensions of the project that must and can remain at a realistic cost.
Eliminating and not worrying about the excess needs of a project can be critical in getting it back to budget on the occasion of an overspend and delivering what is needed on the money available.
It may only be through over ambition and a desire for innovation that the brief is overstretched. But some clarity and focus on a revised project specification is a quality that you bring.
1. Describe the shared purpose, aims and newly prioritised deliverables.
2. State parameters (timescale, budgets, range, scope, geography).
3. State people and partners involved (strategically, production and relationships; reporting and decision making processes).
4. Establish review points at which to check and review progress, results and budget.
It is not about changing the purpose of the project. You will still remain accountable to the initial plan but may take a different route.
It is not a lessthan project, it is one that has answered to its rationale. It has gotten to the core and prioritised the crucial outcomes and delivered this within the resources available. It is now achievable and this should encourage everyone involved.
From the moment budgets are set to the actual time of spending the money, things could have changed. It is generally good practice to review budgets regularly.
Identifying the flexible and static costs illuminates the manoeuvrability you have. Investing a small amount of time in the analysis of the future spending can prevent overspends and pin point areas of concern surrounding lack of funds.
If you are confident in the value of the project and have a sense of what is needed to achieve success, the exercise of appropriating money from one budget heading to another without losing the integrity of the project is manageable.
Your fees and expenses (including research, planning, development of materials/resources and meetings). Where division of your time is not clearly stated, ask for it. If the fees available to you are fixed then a proportionate spread over these duties may inevitably mean less production/contact time unless the budget can be altered.
Fees for professional services, facilities and/or equipment. Though with sponsorship you could get them provided as in kind support, releasing the budget cost.
Production and post production costs
Documentation archiving, exhibiting, publication
Monitoring and evaluation
Taking time to review a project gives consideration to the insights offered in this guide. You should also ask whether the timescale of the project is realistic.
The timescale of projects often align themselves with funding cycles or other external deadlines. Even with these restrictions there are often opportunities to extend dates and deadlines.
Talk to the stakeholders in the project. It is prudent to start at a time that is considered rather than one written in a proposal several months back.
In identifying if there is any flexibility in deferring the start, time may develop for further funds to be sought.
Where there is no luxury of managing time, a harsh assessment of whether or not the project can exist must be made. Working back from the deadline, if there are not enough hours to do the work, you must reduce the volume of the work. Additional money can be found but we are always restricted to the amount of hours in a day.
Most projects come in late that is just the way it is so if there is a fixed deadline, plan to meet it earlier, and work back from that date.
How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time. Time can additionally be found by segmenting the project. Splitting the whole process into sections of a larger plan may have the benefit of separating funds available for distinct activities. Beginning, middle and end. Such as:
Planning, research and development
Production, workshops and evaluation
Exhibition, dissemination and publishing of outcomes
It brings a sequence of events into order and their achievability into manageable activities. These rolled out over a longer timescale can allow for additional funds or partnerships to be secured for each subsequent phase, based on the success of the previous.
Alternatively, seeing the project as a pilot project may enable you to legitimise the changes manifest in you managing the success and value of the project on the initial limited budget, and allow you to go back for additional funds to develop the ideas further in the future.
Getting more money
Additional funds can often be found late in the day. But decide whose role this is. Undertaking it yourself will have an additional cost of your time and efforts. Do you want to be a fundraiser?
Ask for more money from the original sources
Look at the partnerships and opportunities for support in kind either as products/materials or services
A wise thought is to raise an excess of what is needed in advance of the project. Do not just go for the exact costs of the project from one or two places. Go wider, at best twenty per cent more than what is needed. This allows for less than full offers and provides a contingency to review the budget upon starting it.
You have choices: to accept, reject or manage the projects you embark on. Take a lead responsibility in controlling the review and revision of the project in light of your experiences with actual costs versus the budget.
Manage this with some of the foresight that this guide suggests and in summary be assertive in valuing yourself and your knowledge.
It might be worth considering the following project management principles. Seek:
Thanks, praise and celebration
Make it work for you. Approach every project with the intention of it bringing value to your developing career profile.
Rod McIntosh is a freelance artist consultant.
He has a wide range of experiences in supporting artists with their careers and professional development, through training and mentoring. He was the Director of the Florence Trust Studios, London and continues to work with Space Studios and Commissions East.
He can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org
First published: a-n.co.uk May 2005
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