Who pays for the arts? It’s a question that, arguably, no one has quite solved. On the spectrum from completely privatised, philanthropy-based support (loosely, the US model) right through to full public funding (say, Germany), with all the myriad hybrid models in between, each has its drawbacks. And however it’s done, there is never quite enough money.
The problems in every system almost always focus not on that mythical total sum, though, but on who decides how the cake gets sliced, and where funds are allocated. The Arts Council was set up in 1946 to make decisions about dishing out public money to culture at arm’s length from the government of the day. And that’s what has caused a furore, since the latest funding announcements in November.
The bite-back, after it was announced that English National Opera would have its annual Arts Council of England grant of £12.6mn completely axed, was way beyond expectations. More than 83,000 people signed a petition. Leading figures in the arts wrote, spoke, protested. Some 65 opera companies across the world sent messages of support.
Certainly, I’m guessing, this was way beyond ACE’s expectations. There followed two months of furious behind-the-scenes horse-trading, and plenty of public hot air — debates in the House of Lords and the House of Commons — as well as a meeting between ENO’s chief executive Stuart Murphy and the recently appointed secretary of state in charge of culture, Michelle Donelan. And sure enough, news came of what sounds like a reprieve — not so much a U-turn, on ACE’s part, as a face-saving compromise. ENO will receive £11.46mn for the coming year and continue to put on a full programme of work at its home base in the London Coliseum — rather than immediately accede to ACE’s demand that it re-establish itself outside the capital, as a nod to the government’s “levelling-up” agenda.
But the funds now awarded for the coming year are part of the £17mn special restructuring grant (to be spread over three years) that was contained in the original offer. Which leaves, even by my rudimentary maths, just £2.77mn for each of the following two years.
Isn’t that just a stay of execution — leaving an even more insecure prospect a year from now? Yes, there is talk of further funding, subject to application, and Murphy feels that “the mood-music has changed a bit”. But such vague indicators are hardly a way to run any sizeable organisation, especially one that, as Murphy pointed out to me this week, works on very long lead-times. And especially again, for a company set up to challenge opera’s elitist reputation and provide access for all, cheap tickets and education and development work. He talks feelingly about “facing the cliff edge”.
All pretty chaotic, you might say, as a way to run a cultural policy. A joint statement from Britain’s opera houses this week calls the ACE’s lack of a coherent policy for opera “reckless”. And in an interview for BBC Radio’s Front Row, ACE’s chief executive Darren Henley — while calling ENO an “excellent organisation which does excellent work” — talked of receiving an “instruction from government”, in the person of the then secretary of state Nadine Dorries, to move substantial amounts of cultural investment outside the capital, and hinting strongly that otherwise the ACE’s own funding was on the line. So much for an arm’s-length principle.
So I asked Murphy whether he thought ACE itself was now in question. Sniping at the Arts Council has always been a sort of national sport — but now ACE seems to be caught between a bullying government with a rapidly changing ministerial line-up and the expectations of a vocal public. His reply was suitably diplomatic, of course, but “a three-year funding cycle simply doesn’t work”, he believes, citing the fact that Britain’s leading art galleries and museums have a different, much more predictable direct funding arrangement than the precarity that faces the performing arts.
In his vision of perfect private-public balance — what he calls “the sweet spot, a bit of philanthropy and some public funding” — there’s a dance between the two parts. Have the recent funding ructions, with their inevitable implications about the status and validity of ENO, shaken the confidence of its private sponsors? “100 per cent, yes. No question,” comes the reply. While some are loyal, he says, some are “really angry”. The privatising view that shortfalls in public funds can and will be made up by sponsorship and philanthropy is crude thinking.
And the “levelling-up” agenda also “needs nuance”, Murphy claims. Coming from Leeds, he’s in a good position to observe that “there’s a sophisticated relationship between London and non-London”. To encourage better access to the arts by simply banishing certain organisations from the capital is, again, a pretty blunt instrument.
So the overall questions about arts funding across the world, as well as the future of this particular organisation, seem no closer to a resolution. But perhaps the recent heated airing of the issues will lead to some creative thinking.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor
Find out about our latest stories first — follow @ftweekend on Twitter
Source: Financial Times