Words: Maria Yacoob
The rehearsal studios at Sadler’s Wells are where the most exciting dance-makers on the planet create physical alchemy. In these sparse, mirrored spaces, extraordinary bodies turn, leap, contract, extend and wrap around each other in new and inventive ways, pushing the human physique to its limits. Professional choreographers and dancers create productions that astound and inspire audiences across the globe.
But there is one dance group here that is extraordinary in its own special way. Company of Elders is Sadler’s Wells’ resident over-sixties company. This group of 28 dancers in their sixties, seventies and eighties not only meets for weekly classes, but works with choreographers from Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance and the Hofesh Shechter Company. It performs to high acclaim in the UK and abroad, at venues as diverse as the Houses of Parliament, the National Theatre and the prestigious Venice Biennale Dance Festival.
The dancers come from different backgrounds, but are united in the loyalty and love they feel for the group and for dancing itself. One member, Donald, says that, far from his body being ‘too old to dance’, the movement helps him stay young. ‘I have a problem with my back and I also have osteoporosis, but I suspect the dance really helps my posture.’ Even serious illness doesn’t stop members dancing. Eve, who carried on throughout a battle with cancer, says: ‘The most wonderful thing about dancing when you’re not well is that you forget that you’re not well.’
Company of Elders is a prime example of the vital work done by arts organisations in the UK, reaching into communities to enhance the quality of people’s lives. Earlier this year, the group performed at Circus Space in Hoxton. Just before they arrived on stage there was an announcement that was important not just to the dancers, but to every person in the UK whose life has benefited from the arts, and to anyone who might benefit in the future: the launch of the £7m Arts Impact Fund.
The Arts Impact Fund is piloting a new way for arts organisations to access funding, bringing together public, private and charitable investment. Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BofAML) is one of the fund’s co-creators and major investors, supported by the Arts Council as well as other commercial and charitable partners.
In the past, arts organisations have looked for support from the government through grants, or they have borrowed money commercially or received philanthropic donations to fund new and existing work. The Arts Impact Fund adds another dimension by offering unsecured loans from £150,000 to £600,000 to creative organisations, at interest rates ranging from 4 to 7 per cent. Its conditions, which are quite different and less onerous than those of standard bank or commercial loans, are modelled on the principle of social investment.
Social investors put money into a project or organisation, seeking not only a return on their funding (although not always at fair market), but also to make social impact or ‘public good’ from their loans. For example, BofAML recently invested $50m to make low-interest loans to non-profit organisations to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings. In another programme, BofAML invested $10m to fund affordable loans and technical assistance to women entrepreneurs in developing countries.
The Arts Impact Fund is the first time social investment with public, private and government funding has been used to support the arts, making the UK a world leader in this field. Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Arts Council England, explains: ‘It doesn’t matter where you go… to a hospital, an old people’s home or any social institution – you will find arts and culture bettering people’s lives and investing in the quality of their lives. Arts and culture absolutely deliver public good. And arts and culture and social investment are a match made in heaven.’
The announcement of the Arts Impact Fund is particularly timely. Since the financial crisis of 2008, civil society has seen lower levels of spending on the arts and, though philanthropy has played its role, alternative financing mechanisms, such as social investment, mark an opportunity for a new revenue stream. This form of investment has advantages, because recipients may receive capacity-building advice from experienced arts investors and learn how to make their organisations more financially resilient.
The Arts Impact Fund is the latest initiative in BofAML’s long-standing commitment to the arts. It already loans out pieces from its own collection to museums at no cost. It also has its own Art Conservation Project, which has provided grants to conserve 72 unique works in 27 countries around the world. Most recently, MBNA, a subsidiary of the bank, announced a significant investment in Chester’s new cultural centre, housed in a Grade II-listed Art Deco building.
The bank has been awarding sponsorship and grants to arts organisations for many years. In addition, through its ‘Art of Connecting’ programme it supports arts initiatives in the localities where its employees live and work. In the past three years its arts-related education programmes alone have involved 109,000 young people in projects in London, Chester and Ireland.
Andrea Sullivan, the bank’s Head of Corporate Social Responsibility EMEA, has helped structure the newest chapter in the company’s support of the arts, not least because the bank recognises that the Arts Impact Fund has ‘tremendous potential for scale, thereby generating positive social and economic impact in our communities’.
It is wonderful that the arts have the scope to reach and enhance the lives of so many people. However, their power also lies in how they touch individuals. Sybil, who’s danced with Company of Elders, is one of those people. ‘Being a member of this group means everything to me. And the older I get, the more important it is. I’ve got a replacement hip, but – touch wood – it doesn’t seem to affect my dancing.’
For further information about the Arts Impact Fund, visit artsimpactfund.org