Emma Rice’s new theatre company has become shrouded in controversy before it even exists, following criticism of its £1.9m allocation of Arts Council England (ACE) funding.
The outgoing artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe announced plans to base her next venture, Wise Children, in Bristol earlier this summer, but its South West roots have been called into question by commentators angry at its inclusion in the coveted portfolio.
Journalist Christy Romer argued the organisation’s endorsement of a venture which was registered just nine days before the application deadline “makes a mockery of the system”.
His Arts Professional article challenged Wise Children’s Bristol credentials, pointing out the new company was originally registered with a London address and will make its debut with a residency at London’s Old Vic theatre in 2018.
Both ACE and Rice have “emphatically rejected” the claims and the Arts Council stated it has a “rigorous and equitable application and assessment process that is open, accountable, auditable and transparent”.
Sir Nicholas Serota, the newly appointed Arts Council chairman, has promised to re-balance and diversify the sector with a £170m increase in funding for projects outside of London from 2018.
That this commitment has been called into question sparked a backlash in Bristol and beyond, with arts commentators raising concerns about whether the South West will actually stand to benefit from the investment.
Annie McGann, a campaigner against arts cuts in the city, said she has no quarrel with Rice or Wise Children, but is doubtful of ACE’s commitment to providing fairer funding throughout the regions.
“I worry that this new addition to the ACE portfolio may impact on our community-based projects if it siphons off money that’s for the West Country,” she said, adding that if there is funding for the South West, it should go to companies that are based here all the time and filter down to suppliers, costume design and employment of local crew.
Many echoed these concerns, with a general consensus that the issue is not with Rice’s undeniable talent, but funding of the sector in general.
Others defended the decision to grant the ACE funding for an exciting project lead by a known name.
Rice has responded to criticism, saying she has been based in the region for 25 years and currently lives in Bristol. Wise’s registered address has also been changed to a local one, but it remains unclear where the company will actually be based.
“Where we eventually put down our bags and find a physical base is to be discovered over the coming years, but one thing is sure – it is South West all the way. That has never been in doubt,” said Rice in a recent blog post.
“I, along with Allegra Galvin, my associate producer, applied to ACE in January to become a national portfolio organisation.
“I am delighted beyond words that we were successful. This is such a statement of support from ACE and a recognition of what I have achieved over my varied career. I am so grateful and will pay back this trust in every way possible.”
She clarified that Wise Children will tour in the South West, nationally and internationally and will also have an integrated training programme called ‘The School for Wise Children’.
Rice added: “This is simply the most important and exciting project of my working life.”
The former artistic director of Cornwall’s acclaimed Kneehigh theatre company has done a lot of work with Bristol Old Vic and her production The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales comes to the city in November.
An ACE spokesperson said: “We are thrilled to welcome Wise Children into the national portfolio and proud to support Emma Rice, who is one of the most inspirational theatre makers working in the UK today.
“It’s a major coup for the South West that Emma has chosen to base her new company here and is a significant indication of the pull of the region as a centre for cultural activity and creative industries.
“The negotiation and development of a funding agreement with Wise Children is predicated on them basing themselves in the South West. While rooted in the South West, Wise Children will have a national significance and London is an important part of that national picture.”
Main photo by Nik Strangelove.
Read more: Bristol arts organisations celebrate funding