Robbing the talented to give to the rich

Britain's leading arts institutions are strong enough to compete for fu nds in the market, argues Robert Maycock. Public subsidy should be reserved to encourage the raw potential of the young and the new
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Fishers in the murky political waters around the arts of Britain were last week thrown some tempting bait.There was the Royal Opera House announcing, with a positive air of pride, its £267 tickets for Luciano Pavarotti's forthcoming appearances in April.To hell with easy access and the best for everybody: this is the same marketplace as Barbra Streisand, the ROH said, and we are in it for what we can get.

Less flamboyantly, the chairman of the Arts Council of England, Lord Gowrie, gave a Radio 3 lecture on the philosophy of public subsidy. Or rather, the lack of one, because he had decided that the English mind is not fond of philosophising. In place of aphilosophy he suggested his own big idea: we need to increase our cultural budget to 1 per cent of public spending, and this should be used more or less in the same unphilosophical way as before: we would give the biggest sums to the biggest companies such as the ROH, with its talent for the biggest commercial money-spinning, If ever we needed a philosophy, it is in the face of such blatant contradictions. Fortunately the ROH has inadvertently presented us with an idea to help fill the vacuum: what if we took the most powerful arts organisations out of the subsidy system altogether?

In the coming year the four national companies - the Royal Opera House (which includes two ballet companies), English National Opera, the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company - will account for £52m of the Arts Council of England's £191m budget. Ten other million-pound clients, all of them opera or dance companies or orchestras, use a further £22m.

The rest, which includes the sums distributed to the regional arts boards, has to be shared by thousands of clients around the country, from individual creative artists to substantial theatre groups, galleries and arts centres. They all have plenty of ideas as to how the £74m swallowed up by the subsidised giants might be used, not to mention the proceeds from Lord Gowrie's "1 per cent" proposal.

The biggest companies all run up huge losses before subsidy. But they are thriving businesses. Top conductors, singers and soloists charge five-figure sums per performance. Media and recording companies and international agents live off their work and generate revenue and royalties for them. Big theatre companies send successful productions off for lucrative runs in the West End and on Broadway, which make the directors and investors rich. Symphony orchestras live by selling their services for films, advertising jingles and CDs, as well as money-spinning engagements for popular concerts; only their high-profile subsidised concert series lose them money.

Yet, because these successful enterprises have been guaranteed taxpayers' subsidy, they have not had to show what they are made of. These are organisations with enormous clout, yet they never need to use their full negotiating muscle - except to twist arms at the Arts Council.

There is an outstanding example of what can be done and that is Glyndebourne, which finds what it needs every year by its own efforts. Apart from its touring company, Glyndebourne is completely unsubsidised. Crucial to its success is the leadership of Sir George Christie, owner of the country house at Glyndebourne and now chairman of the Opera Company.

When I put it to Lord Gowrie last year that the other big companies needed a Christie School of Fundraising to educate them, he replied that Sir George was an exceptional individual. But if they play the market properly, all the companies have what it takes to command the income, if not of an Andrew Lloyd Webber, at least of a host of Placido Domingos or Herbert von Karajans. If they cannot raise it through private donations they will have to pursue more high-profit work to pay for their loss-leaders.

The arts organisations became dependent on subsidy simply because of their habit of budgeting for an annual deficit. They work out what income they need, take a view on how much they can extract from the Arts Council, and then set about earning the rest.They are able to get away with this back-to-front business logic because of the effectiveness of their lobbying connections and the inertia of the subsidy system.

Board members are recruited for their access to government and the higher levels of the Arts Council. Advisory panels and regional arts boards are well peopled with those who have vested interests in one or other large client. Officers who try to make cuts - as in the fiasco over London's orchestras a year ago - find themselves bombarded with insinuating or downright aggressive calls.

Even in public the companies can develop a breathtaking arrogance. The National Lottery is expected to deliver up to £140m for the arts this year: the Royal Opera House has just put in a bid for £50m of it. Both the ROH and English National Opera closed down their contemporary opera studios because of professed shortage of funds, then shamelessly accepted increased grants last month to start again from scratch.

So what might be a philosophy for public subsidy of the arts? When the Arts Council was founded in the aftermath of war, its task was to build a secure, thriving arts structure for the nation. That has been achieved. But especially in the performing arts, institutions are not unchanging monoliths; they are organisms, which need nurturing to adult life.

The continuing work of public funding organisations is to support that which is coming into existence, developing in robust health, but struggling in inadequate conditions, vital but undernourished, young but raw - and help bring it to self-sufficiency.

Once that is done, the subsidisers should have the grace and strength to bow out and turn to the next generation.

Specifically, money should go first to the admired, smaller theatre and dance companies, music groups and galleries that keep complaining they are hard done by. It can sound like whingeing, but they complain because it is true; the big boys are allowed to run off with all the best toys.

Then there must be investment in the new: not just commissions and experimental work, but new companies and visionary ideas. Finally, and most far-reaching, is the need to address the cultural imbalance in what we fund. Britain has always been a nation of many cultures, but you would not know it from the spread of subsidised arts.

To take music alone: folk and jazz, Asian and African, new and early music, are all thriving sectors of British life and their audiences add up to millions. But where is the investment to match what goes into the large-scale classical companies?

The Arts Council is stuck in a routine of supporting the same old clients year after year because they are clever enough to submit budgets showing they need the funds. Indeed, the ENO and the ROH are the Gatting and Gooch of the arts world: we all know they have delivered the goods, but they lumber along with steadily increasing girths and occupy the space that ought to be used to bring on a dozen bright young talents.

Of course, the predictable rejoinder from the big companies will be: why here, when no other country in the world withholds subsidy from its prestige arts organisations? But why should it not start here, just as the Arts Council concept itself started here? The policy makers need to give stronger direction and, above all, a vision.

Talk to the people who have to run the system from day to day, especially around the regions, and they will agree with the diagnosis, even if they have temporarily lost sight of a cure. A new government? An effective minister? We cannot yet see. But the ideas and the energy are there all right, and the pressure from below is on the increase.

Arrogant and complacent the big companies may be, but they should know that they cannot call the tune for ever.

The writer is music critic for the Independent and a member of the South-East Arts Board.