Arts: An arts organisation is not a millennium dome...

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The Independent Culture
THE ONLY mystery about Bernard Haitink's "resignation" from the Royal Opera House is how he managed to put it off for so long. But for as long as he did, it was possible to believe that something of what he and his predecessors had created would be maintained, that the flame would not be extinguished.

The creation of any artistic company or organisation - an orchestra or a theatre group, an art gallery or a drama school - is a slow and arduous business, dependent on vision, determination, skill and sheer cunning. It generally starts small and poverty-stricken, its beginnings modest and uncertain; then, thanks to blind faith, hard work and an unwavering commitment to standards, the growing organisation begins to get stronger, to expand, to flourish. At this point, the judicious application of extra funds can have a transformative effect; the solid, struggling work of the earliest days begins to pay off in gorgeous blooms.

From the beginning, too, the company will have been cultivating its audience, exciting and involving them with the nature of the work, charming and challenging them, giving them something of what they know they like along with some of what they are not really sure about. Carefully but purposefully, the company creates a loyalty and a trust in its audience; they adventure into the unknown together.

Somewhere about this point, the critics discover it, and heap trowels of praise on the work in a rather indiscriminate manner, till suddenly, the company is fashionable, and the world rushes to see it. The company grows still more; it becomes an institution; the board is stuffed with the great and the good; costs spiral.

Then the critics reach for their shovels again and start to heap the opposite of praise on it. Then questions are asked in parliament, and people get weary of the whole thing and the bully-boy phrases "pulling the plug" and "starting from scratch" are bandied about. And sometimes, after an episode of mismanagement or scandal, the company/school/museum is shut down. And then it's gone, gone for ever.

Because make no mistake, the tree thus felled will not grow again overnight. The process has to start all over again, but the skills and the confidence and the trust and the continuity have been destroyed for good and all. An arts organisation is not a millennium dome, some gaudy palace thrown up ostentatiously to assert the awful emptiness of the age; it is a growing, living thing, which exists to enrich and sustain the whole of society. This is not brainwashing, nor is it an imposed discipline: it is about building some sort of inner resources within individuals so they don't have to keep looking to superficial stimulation to feel alive, but are able to build their understanding and experience, to develop what is naturally within them.

The closure or abandonment of any great arts organisation is grim enough in itself, but when it seems to be indicative of a general thrust in government thinking, then it is frightening. All of us who have worked for these organisations have to some extent, and for the most part gladly, subsidised them, but those who actually run them have battled every single day to enable them simply to stand still, to maintain what was so hard won in the past.

Anyone who works in the arts in Continental Europe or America can scarcely believe that we manage to do what we do on the money that we are given, which is very flattering, no doubt. But our work could be so much better. Instead, we have to fight, fight, fight, exhaustingly, to maintain what we've got. And now they talk of abandoning even that. If they do, it will be a crime.

Discounted, swept away: the sweat, toil, tears and, in some cases, blood of so many extraordinary people has gone into creating these organisations - those amazing women responsible for so much of British cultural life - Lilian Baylis and Emma Cons at the Old Vic, which led to the National Theatre and ENO, Ninette de Valois at Sadler's Wells Ballet, which became the Royal Ballet, Elsie Fogerty who pioneered drama training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Marie Rambert - but not just these great ones; everyone, every actor, director, dancer, box- office manager, stage-door man, wardrobe mistress, publicist, playwright, repetiteur, teacher, security guard, all of the army of people who build and maintain these organisations, will be betrayed by their destruction.

Most of all, though, it is the British people who will be betrayed and bereft. So many more people would for ever lose the chance to become - as a recent report has conclusively proved - deeper, happier, more productive as a result of hearing and seeing the great stories that the artists have told and are telling, in song, in dance, in words, and in images, the point of every single one of which is: there is more to life than you think.