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Literature Projects: Stevie Ronnie on Arctica—A childhood dream to visit the Arctic

Written by Stevie Ronnie

stevie_ronnie_colour_image_credit_colin_davison copyArctica began as a childhood dream to visit the Arctic. After discovering that artists and writers could hold residencies there I began searching for a way that I could make it happen. It took around two years and several dead ends before I discovered The Arctic Circle, a US-based international Arctic residency programme that brings artists, writers, scientists and educators together to explore the Arctic and respond creatively to their surroundings. I completed an application and emailed it off, expecting to be rejected.

When I received the acceptance I was ecstatic. I was finally going to visit one of the most amazing places on the planet and spend time writing and making. The programme is heavily subsidised but there is still an expectation on the artist to raise some of the costs, which is common in America where public funding for the arts is virtually non-existent. Over the next few months I made a point of telling people about my plans. One such conversation was with the team at Durham Book Festival and my expedition was a good fit with their programme so they offered me a commission. This was a lifeline and although I wasn’t going to be paid for my time there, at least I knew that my costs would be covered and I could definitely go.

In July 2013 I set off for the Arctic where I met up with a group of amazing artists and writers from all over the world. We spent a few days in the Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen, before setting sail on a tall ship to explore the Svalbard archipelago, thinking, writing and making art along the way. The experience was life changing and I came back with a full notebook, a series of artist’s books I had made on the ship, a head full of ideas and thousands of photographs of the Arctic landscape. I didn’t know what I wanted to make with all of this material but I had a strong feeling that the subject of the work would be climate change as I had spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about it while I was there.

Around six months after coming back to the UK I was shortlisted for a writing and climate change residency at the Free Word Centre in London. I didn’t get the residency but after the interview Rose Fenton, the then Director of Free Word, contacted me about a potential exhibition of my Arctic photography, suggesting that I apply to Arts Council England for Grants for the Arts funding to cover the costs. I then began thinking about how I could use the GFA funding to cover the other work I had been making as a result of my Arctic residency so I brought it all together as Arctica, a multidisciplinary arts project encompassing poetry, performance, film, visual art, artist’s books and a digital public artwork.

I contacted arts organisations and venues and invited them to work with me. Not all of them said yes but I persevered and eventually I built a network of committed partners.  At this stage I also contacted potential collaborators and mentors for each of the project strands. As I built the project team I began to fill in spreadsheets that detailed the budget and the plan of activity. There was a lot that I wanted to do so I allowed a year for the activity to take place and added on some extra time for evaluation and contingency. For Arctica I had to consider artist’s fees for the collaborators, administration and production, travel, accommodation, subsistence, transport, installation, venue hire, marketing, insurance, website, materials, evaluation, contingency and a fee for myself. The wider project team included a producer, an administrator, an editor, a visual arts curator a film director and a theatre director.

When applying for GFA funding it is important to have some cash support so I approached Durham Book Festival as they had funded my initial residency and they kindly offered me another commission.

I organised a meeting with the Arts Council who were very enthusiastic and supportive, suggesting various ways in which I could strengthen the application. I set aside a day to write the application and it was relatively easy to complete as I had already done the groundwork. It was a nervous wait as I now had my heart set on making the work and I felt as if I would be letting a lot of people down if it didn’t come through. Thankfully I received an offer letter just before the first exhibition was due to open and I was able to get started.

Over the course of the next year I presented the various strands of the work in different permutations of exhibitions, performances and screenings across the UK. There were many challenges along the way: things took longer than expected, costs changed and venues cancelled but there was always some way to make it work. I am grateful that the Arts Council are such an approachable funder and they recognise that a project will change as it is delivered.

Almost all of the activity has now been delivered and I am currently in the process of tying up the loose ends and evaluating the project. After Arctica I have been left with a body of work that I will continue to exhibit, tour, show, screen and publish for years to come. None of this would have been possible without the funding which has bought me time to produce the creative work and enabled me to bring in outside expertise. Thinking about your writing as an arts project may seem strange at first but the benefits can be huge and, if done correctly, it doesn’t mean that you need to compromise on any of your creative aims.

5 tips for writers looking to fund a literary project

1 Follow your passions rather than inventing a project that you think will attract funding.
2 Develop relationships with arts organisations that can support your funding bid and help you to deliver the project.
3 Build in money and activity and activity to further your professional development as a writer.
4 Generally funders like to see outputs, participants and a measurable audience for the work so think creatively about how you can reach people over the course of the project.
5 Remember that you don’t have to deliver it all on your own. You can bring in other artists as collaborators and other experts to help with production and delivery.

Links to Stevie's website / work online

Stevie's main website

Arctica Project website

Follow Stevie on Twitter

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