It is with huge disappointment, that I received the news this week that from April 2024 the City Council is proposing that they no longer support Watershed with cultural funding.
Last week, members of Bristol’s Culture Board were asked to fill in a survey about the ways in which their organisation meets the aims of Bristol’s One City Plan. I wasn’t feeling too hopeful when I opened the form – despite the fact that the city is internationally known as a centre of innovation and creativity, culture has never been a focus of the One City plan. However, looking over the sections on Economy, Environment, Children and Health, I was delighted to be reminded of the many ways that Watershed delivers against these goals.
It is with huge disappointment then, that I received the news this week that from April 2024 the City Council is proposing that they no longer support Watershed with cultural funding, though the final decision will be made by the City Council Cabinet next week.
It is obviously hard to question an investment decision that concerns your own organisation without sounding like sour grapes. And we certainly understand that local authorities are under severe pressure and have to make difficult decisions.
But, it is also hard to feel confident about the funding process when the city doesn’t have a clear cultural strategy, or a Head of Culture in post. The round of funding we applied to has been stalled for 12 months due to concerns about ‘the decision making process’. Our applications were re-evaluated months later, though we do not know if the criteria we originally applied against were used in the second assessment process, and of course 12 months ago the culture sector looked like a very different place. The Council have also reduced the funding for their larger grants strand by £75k per year compared to previous years funding.
This decision comes in a hard week for cinema in the city as Showcase de Lux in Cabot Circus and Hengrove Cineworld close. Earlier this month the British Film Institute produced a new report on the Cultural Value of cinema that demonstrated that “Going to the cinema is one of the most popular cultural activities in the country” and that almost two-thirds (63%) of survey respondents stated that the cinema venue contributes to “their sense of pride in the area where they live”, but ticket income is not enough to cover the spiralling costs of running a building. Unlike many commercial cinema chains, Watershed has fought hard to keep cinema democratic and inclusive – our tickets for those aged 24 or under cost £5.00 at all times of the day. We know that tomorrow’s creatives find their spark and their voice in front of a cinema screen.
“I feel like it’s a place where I belong”
Watershed Audience Member
There are many ways that we deliver on the city’s mission. Watershed...
- supports creative people to make brilliant work. Last year we distributed £986,670 of funding and gifted free workspace to 195 creatives in the city centre – making sure that it isn’t just those with a private income that can pursue a creative practice.
- supports young people to access culture. In the past 12 months, 42,000 people have used a £5.00 concession ticket to see a film at Watershed and 24,700 young people engaged with our programme.
- is a major local employer – we employ over 110 people and support career progression across hospitality, creative technologies, film production, research, innovation and more. We are accredited as a Real living Wage employer and our work underpins a healthy, energised and diverse workforce that builds resilience in the wider City economy.
- forefronts access and inclusion. 49% of our organisation’s trustees, workforce and members are from a group that is under represented in the culture sector. We offer Relaxed, Masked & Socially Distanced and Audio Described/Descriptive Subtitled screenings, and regular British Sign Language interpreted events.
- provides social infrastructure – our toilets are for everyone (not just our customers) and we offer free menstrual products – at a time when most public loos have been closed. Our Café & Bar is committed to supporting local suppliers, giving them a city centre showcase for their products.
- is delivering against the city’s aim to become carbon neutral by 2030. 70% of our staff are Carbon Literacy trained and we are part of Julie’s Bicycle Creative Climate Leadership 2023 programme.
- is a major contributor to Bristol’s international profile. We have exported Playable City across the world and have deep and equitable partnerships in Japan, Korea, Nigeria, South Africa, Canada, US and more.
"One of the only social spaces in the city centre which feels cross-generational, diverse and welcoming.”
Watershed Audience Member
Sometimes people might think that we have lots of money, mainly because we try to pay people fairly. But due to inflation, Covid and the cost of living crisis Watershed has a £200,000 structural deficit. The Council are aware of this and that we are doing everything we can to turn around and address this deficit, without reducing impact, ignoring global challenges or not paying people fairly. We were making headway – through hard work, new ways of working and savings – we have already improved our financial position by over £260k this year. But we are still in deficit.
The loss of £50,000 a year of Council support may seem small compared to the size of our organisation, but we have already weathered a 35% cut by the Council in 2018, without even considering the fact that public funding doesn’t include inflation. The Council also cut funding for Rife in 2018, the young people’s platform we had worked in partnership with them on, which we subsequently continued to support ourselves. Watershed’s City Council funding is used to support our core functions, underwrite risk, invest in change and leverage other funding. It is hugely necessary and valuable. This complete cut will be a severe blow.
And we are not alone – other brilliant organisations have not had their funding renewed in both the Openness and the Imaginations strands. Organisations that contribute huge amounts of social, cultural and financial impact to the city. That is not to take away from the joy of seeing some of the brilliant and deserving organisations that have been supported. There will always be turnover in a funding portfolio, and no one can expect to be funded just because they have been funded before.
Bristol has long been seen by people across the country as a place for independent arts to thrive, but for this to be true we need to ensure we are also supporting the platforms that enable them. The City has underinvested in its culture sector for many years. Without a clear strategy to map out the unintended consequences of cutting cultural infrastructure, I have significant concerns about the impact of these funding decisions on Bristol’s communities, economy and overall brand.
Watershed is trying to prototype a new kind of cultural organisation, where values are centred and challenges are faced. We seek to counter the unintended consequences of “Business As Usual” and centre new ways of funding and supporting artists that are fit for our changing world.
“Bristol without Watershed would be empty for me”
Watershed Audience Member
You can help by continuing to support us – by coming to our events, donating to our work, advocating for both Watershed and the wider importance of culture in Bristol – at all scales and across all forms. We are looking for a sponsor to support our £5.00 ticket scheme – could your company play its part and gain recognition for this important community programme? And this week we are taking part in The Big Give match funding campaign for the first time, and asking for donations to help fund our creative climate action work. Take a look at all of the brilliant work we have been doing and have planned – and share or support if you can.
Clare Reddington, Watershed CEO