Saturday, 5 July 2014

Wrestling through Waffle - Arts Council funding 2015-2018

Questioning the Arts Council England funding programme for 2015-2018 is like questioning Nanny.  Wrestle through the waffle of the 67-page document "Great Art and Culture for Everyone". It's a masterpiece of corporate-speak. But corporate-speak is designed to look good and say nothing.  Arts organizations have to play along.  All the more reason those us who care about the arts need to think.

Read John Berry's  brave defence of the ENO, faced with a vindictive 32.7% cut over the 2015-2018 period  Most classical music organizations, including orchestras, are getting cut around 5%, except for the ENO and the Barbican, which is being slashed by 21%. It's highly ironic that the ENO should be treated in this way at a time when it's starting to emerge from a difficult period, ironically underv the helm of Peter Bazalgette who left in late 2012 to chair the ACE. Is this ironic?  He says he didn't intervene in the application, but he should have known how the ENO connects with other parts of the opera world.  The ENO's new business plan is reasonable,  much more comprehensive than the nonsense about "switching to musicals" which the media seized upon. Sure, the ENO may emerge stronger but it might also collapse, even with extra emergency funding. The Daily Telegraph might gloat,  but that's short-term pettiness.  Without the ENO, there'll be a huge, gaping wound in British opera life, which cannot be filled, no matter how much money goes to smaller companies.

The ENO represents lively creativity, fundamental to the good health of the arts overall. We don't have to like what it does, but it fills a niche that other opera groups do not address. At the top, we have the Royal Opera House, one of the greatest houses in the world,. It's so important that, frankly, it should be ring-fenced, protected like the national asset that it is. There are dozens of opera companies in this country, but the fact remains that any company has to reach a level of critical mass to be viable. The ENO is big enough that it has the capacity to do more than the tiny fledglings the ACE wants to promote, however worthy they might be. Size and experience matter. The ENO is big enough that it can support British composers and the much respected Harewood Artists Programme. It also attracts  an audience younger and more open-minded  than the ROH, and one with higher expectations than the West End.   When so much has already been invested in the ENO - and not just in money terms - it simply does not make good business sense to wreck it.

Because the art s are inherently diverse, arts organizations can't be evaluated on equal terms. Opera costs a lot to produce. Hundreds of years of tradition have gone into what we see and hear now; even the avant garde pieces like Quartett (reviewed here) connect to European culture more  than London critics, ever insular, can comprehend.  The true value of opera can't be measured in terms of seat sales and direct market reach. Opera and classical music are the West's great contribution to world culture. Digital broadcasts, HD and DVDs bring classical music and opera to more people than could ever fit into a physical house.  So what if Harriet Harman's constituents don't go to Covent Garden?  People don't have to participate in something to recognize its general worth. Nessun Dorma pervades into the football community: they may not know its context but they can spot a good tune. The German government recognizes that the arts are part of the economy, whose health affects the health of the nation. (Read more here). In Finland, people spend on culture like they'd spend on education (more here).  But in the UK we're hung up on the idea that excellence is elitist and something to be shunned. Nuts, I think, in a country where the old divisions that fuelled class war changed decades ago.There's nothing wrong with elitism if it means excellence, and innovation.

What does "diversity" mean anyway? It's a good thing to encourage the arts outside London, but again, it's an inescapable fact that Britain, unlike the US, it a highly centralized nation, like it or not. Technology trumps old boundaries. Digital and cinema broadcasts, and the internet break down regional barriers, faster than ever before. The BBC unites the nation with its policy of broadcasting from  places like the East Neuk Festival and places beyond. If ever there was a beacon for diversity and world-wide inclusiveness, it's the BBC Proms. Fortunately the ACE doesn't control the BBC - yet.

No amount of political tinkering in the arts is ever going to change society. Forcing one kind of culture down people's throats, whether they want it or not, is counter-productive (Read my End the Missionary Position in the arts) Addressing the fundamentals of education and job opportunities will do much more to create a climate where people don't feel excluded by perceived barriers. Addressing the fundamentals of education and job opportunities will do much more to create a climate where people don't feel excluded by perceived limitations.

It's good that the ACE supports smaller localized organizations. But no matter how much is put into some of these companies, even the very good ones, they aren't going to change the cultural climate. It's simply not possible to equate an organization that needs less than £10,000 a year with one that needs £10 million plus. Real diversity means recognizing difference, but in a positive way. All arts organizations are in this same navy, with similar goals. In all probability, some of the ENO audience includes the same people who go to the same smaller opera opera companies and dance groups that are getting increased funding.  You don't run  a navy by decimating its flagships and most high-tech vessels. Or maybe you do if you're the British Navy. We honour the little boats that saved the army at Dunkirk. The war could not have been fought without doughty tugboats, and  fast-moving cruisers. But it was an armada, like the US Navy in the Pacific, that really changed the course of history.

PLEASE also read this article  The Trouble with Arts Funding   " of England’s National Portfolio Organisations speaks out about transparency, whistle-blowing, the curse of arts buildings, and why artists feel disenfranchised from the arts funding system." Too much emphasis on the Missionary Position and on quasi political agendas, too little transparency. No real across the board analysis of what makes the nations arts scene work. Absolutely no vision. I suspect what needs reform is the ACE itself and its cosy links with the media and with privileged luvvies, which Harriet Harman thinks is a good thing. .

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