It’s not often I start a piece for ArtMuseLondon in a state of anger. Or shock. Or bewilderment. Today it’s all three. I could wait for my ire to subside, but see no reason to. In a situation where it seems impossible to do something, at least I can demonstrate I feel something.
Arts Council England (‘ACE’) has made its latest funding announcement – the Investment Programme for 2023-26. This comprises the usual blurb and quotes that you might expect, alongside a comprehensive spreadsheet that lists the National Portfolio Organisations (‘NPOs’) or similar that will receive funding over the three years. Some companies and institutions have joined the NPOs for the first time: great news for them, and more power to their collective elbows. However, many are looking to see the extent of their funding cut… and others have found that they no longer appear at all. Three high-profile absentees stand out: English National Opera (‘ENO’), Britten Sinfonia and Donmar Warehouse.
Anyone who knows me or my writing will understand that ENO – an ensemble I’m especially passionate about – are a key concern for me here, and I will come back to that. But for now, let’s consider the three of them together.
ACE’s remit to award funding on a truly national basis – and not just pour all the money into London – leaves these three bodies vulnerable. ENO and Donmar are firmly based in the capital; Britten Sinfonia ‘belongs’ to the East of England, although its Barbican residency also places it firmly at the centre of the city’s musical life.
But why these three? In terms of championing and presenting a wide range of work and establishing outreach connections with the community, haven’t they done everything right? They’ve been genuinely innovative, forward-thinking organisations with diverse and inclusive approaches to programming and performance. I’m not saying this doesn’t apply to other arts organisations in the capital, but it’s arguable that this trio have their heads further above the parapet than most.
I don’t think the current Government has ever tried to hide its disdain – hatred, even – for ‘culture’. Its attitude during the pandemic told us that. The arts enrich our lives, offer pleasure for its own sake, and perhaps most importantly, open and expand our minds: teach us new attitudes, help us gain more understanding of people or places we may not know, help us to become better. Extreme governments – and I don’t think it’s controversial to call ours that anymore – depend on control. Open-minded, free-thinking people are not reliable voters.
ACE, of course, is still providing vital life support for nearly 1,000 NPOs. It’s wrong to begrudge those recipients the money, and it is far too simplistic to try and paint the authority doling the cash out as actively evil. But in complying with the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda – an Orwellian turn of phrase if ever I heard one – some of their de-funding activities are perplexing and, at worst, deeply cynical.
‘Levelling’ does not happen in one direction. Instead of increasing overall arts funding to provide the support the sector needs, to level up in one area or discipline means levelling down elsewhere. Opera seems to have been targeted disproportionately with funding cuts for the Royal Opera House but also – bizarrely – for Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne. English Touring Opera receives an increase as a ‘Transfer’ NPO – in other words, funding explicitly linked to a planned move out of London. And while it’s great to see orchestras like Aurora and Chineke! benefit, should this happen alongside cuts for their larger London colleagues?
Let’s turn back to ENO. The current situation will seem like horrific deja vu to much of the ensemble. Past mismanagement meant exclusion and placing into ‘special measures’ by ACE in 2014, with behind-the-scenes mayhem continuing for several years. The current regime, however, seemed to have turned things around, with an exciting, ambitious season and a potential period of stability finally in the offing. Until now.
It was a ‘Friends’ email from ENO where I first read the news. The message felt a little garbled and rushed, compelled to put a positive spin on the situation but not wholly coherent. ENO will no longer receive NPO funding from April 2023. Instead, it has been offered a grant of £17 million over the next three years to develop and implement an alternative plan. The email mentioned a possible move to Manchester, while retaining the London Coliseum partly for opera/dance, but also for commercial use – in other words, big-ticket musicals with the aim of drawing tourist bums towards seats.
As a result, a wide range of argument and debate has erupted since. Whether ENO deserves funding or not. Whether Manchester should have an opera house/company or not. Whether London should have two opera houses or not. All this is a splendid distraction from the overall thrust of the Government’s agenda.
In the above scenario, actual ‘levelling up’ would mean establishing an opera presence in Manchester – or enabling Opera North to expand accordingly – and allowing an unmolested ENO to continue building on its achievements in London. (It’s worth remembering that London doesn’t have multitudes of opera houses / concert halls / theatres / what-you-will simply because of its fancy city ways; it’s because it’s absolutely massive.)
Instead, ACE seems to be forcing ENO into some kind of nightmare capitalist experiment (being whitewashed as exploring a new way for opera to work). If ENO somehow relocates and makes a success of it, it will ‘prove’ opera houses can go it alone, and set a precedent for de-funding other companies in the future. If it all goes wrong and ENO folds… well, it’s hard to ignore the fact that ownership of the London Coliseum would revert to the Government.
And I’m not afraid to sound sentimental over this. ENO is not an abstract test case. It’s a thriving centre of creative excellence, with people who now face fresh uncertainty and upheaval after doing all the hard work to get themselves out of that situation less than a decade ago. (How do you uproot and relocate an entire performing company? Answer: you don’t – it inevitably fractures to some extent, or collapses.) It is a magnificent ensemble, with a Chorus and Orchestra so brilliant and dedicated, they won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera in the 2015/16 season, at the height of their last bout of undeserved chaos. They self-started a new initiative, ENO Studio Live, to reach new audiences in venues outside the Coliseum. During COVID, they brought drive-in opera to the masses, and developed a therapy programme (ENO Breathe) to help sufferers recover their breathing using vocal techniques. To kick ENO back into square one after their recent achievements shames ACE and makes a mockery of any supposed consistency or logic in their thinking.
This is why I’m angry, and why you should be too.
The simplest way to support ENO is to buy a ticket. Check out their website for details of the 2022/23 season: eno.org.
Photo of the Coliseum interior: © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons
There will be ardent supporters out there who feel exactly the same about Britten Sinfonia (brittensinfonia.com), Donmar Warehouse (donmarwarehouse.com) and any other organisation facing financial difficulties following the announcement.
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