Leading Article: Don't be afraid to take on the arts

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The Independent Culture
THE STATE of the funded arts in this country is now moving from Whitehall farce to gross indecency. As ever, the Royal Opera House is at the centre of it, its roll-call of resignations growing day by day, to the point where even its music director, the incomparable Sir Bernard Haitink, has had enough.

He won't be the last. In the wake of the Opera House debacle, the future of the newly refurbished Sadler's Wells has been thrown into doubt, and the Royal Ballet has been discussing unilateral independence.

This is not just a crisis of an elitist institution of plutocratic diva devotees. It has become a crisis that is undermining the whole reputation of performing arts in London, and the relationship with the Government that subsidises them. It shouldn't.

The Government, and the public, desperately need to be reminded that performing arts do matter, that this country is justly famous for them, and that subsidy alongside sponsorship has proved immeasurably important in developing them. The trouble is that, undermined by the lottery - and its fateful emphasis on capital buildings at the expense of production support - arts financing has lost its sense of purpose.

The new Sadler's Wells is the classic example. That London needs a venue fit for visiting dance troupes is beyond doubt. The new building could be just that place. But it has also been used, to disastrous effect, as a means of helping out the Royal Opera House while it builds an equally spanking new facility in London.

What is needed is firm intervention by the Arts and Sport Secretary, Chris Smith. Ian Albery, the chief executive of Sadler's Wells, should be told to stop his endless public whingeing for more money, and concentrate on a long-term programme of international visits and a short-term programme of filling the gap by populism and sponsorship. When he has shown that his long-term programme will work, then there will be room for helping him.

The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, can only be saved in the short term by being taken over directly by the Government, with a new management installed, a different chairman appointed, and a proper plan for the future produced. That may involve total or part privatisation when the new building is completed. But to pretend in the meantime that it can carry on as it is, is nonsense. The Minister has to act.

But don't despair. At the end of it, we will have a dance theatre and an opera house worthy of an international capital city. All it needs is belief and determination.