Wednesday, 12 November 2014

ENO Old Vic and the Myth of Imbalance

The ENO has been forced to pull out of its venture with the Old  Vic Bristol. This production of Orfeo was eagerly anticipated because the Old Vic is one of Britain's oldest theatres, ideal in size and ambience for Monteverdi. Bristol is a prosperous town with an active arts scene, so a collaboration with ENO would have been one of the most exciting events in the West Country in years.  a significant disaster, yet precipitated by the Arts Council England's  decision to slash the ENO's funding by 32.7% over the 2015-2018 period  Most classical music organizations, including orchestras, are getting cut by around 5%, except for the ENO and the Barbican, which is being slashed by 21%. Read my piece Wrestling through Waffle - Arts Council Funding 2015-18..

Tom  Morris of the Old Vic, who would have been directing, said “Bristol Old Vic remains committed to bringing an innovative and accessible production of this exquisite opera to our beautiful theatre and we will continue to explore ways of achieving this within the next couple of years.We are deeply sympathetic to ENO in their current situation and share their frustration in having to postpone their ambition to perform further throughout the UK.” He's wise enough to know that arts organizations should stick together in tough times. Politicians and the public they fool would like nothing better than to divide the arts community.

It's ironic that London organizations get slammed for not reaching out to the regions, yet have their funding slashed so they can't afford to do so when they want to? Crazy logic. The blame lies squarely with the doctrinaire political stance of Arts Council England and its political masters. It's time to challenge the assumption that decentralizing the arts is a good thing.  Much is made of the way taxpayers are "forced" to support the arts, and London, and that  the "poor" support "the rich'. But that's how the whole system is based, not just the arts. There's more than a whiff about Pork Barrel in the air.The more organizations are pushed to "outreach" the less they have to spend on their core activities.

Last week, a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report concluded that the Arts Council's anti-London bias doesn't go far enough, and that there should be more sweeping changes  limiting London’s access to National Lottery funding for the arts to its proper per capita share (equal to that of the rest of England) – this idea was originally proposed in Rebalancing our Cultural Capital; earmarking any future increase in ACE’s grant in aid for the English regions beyond the M25 area; a redoubling of efforts at brokering cultural partnerships involving businesses, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, universities and international organizations, particularly within the EU, which might provide additional funding sources. Furthermore, they recommend that local government organizations should be pushed to do more, even if they have other priorities and needs to address.

The whole foundation of this philosophy is political, and bears no relationship to the realities of arts management.  Politicians exploit the notion that the arts are somehow elitist: for the rich and educated and London-based.  It's easy capital, since most people outside the arts don't know or care what happens. Marshal the  Sun mindset, the universal Luddite, the remains of outmoded class warfare - and bingo! You get votes! As Harriet Harman said, she didn't see her constituents in the audience at the Royal Opera House, so she supports reducing funding to one of the nation's internationally acclaimed flagships of the arts.

The reason why London dominates is simple: there needs to be a critical mass of expertise, below which true excellence can't be reached. London has been the centre of the arts in this country for centuries. London organzations inherit traditions that shouldn't be ignored.  Without London, we wouldn't have a world-class cultural heritage. Strangle the centre and the whole body dies.

The reality is that the arts aren't cheap and excellence only comes when there's a critical concentration of effort. Existing London organizations have that critical mass of expertise and excellence. Throwing money at micro organizations simply doesn't make economic sense.  It would take billions to redress the balance between London and areas outside London. No matter how worthy smaller organizations are, they can't duplicate what already exists in London. London is the golden goose from which all things flow. It just doesn't make good business sense to kill that goose and assume dozens of mini-geese will arise in its place.

In any case, talent isn't something you can turn on like a tap. Talented people excel when they can bounce off other creatives. Some of course thrive on isolation, but throughout history, arty types have flocked to together (often in big cities) for a reason.  In London, people learn their trade from the best in the business, nationally and internationally. Talented people are always going to be a minority, so why not let them thrive together  Forced redistribution doesn't work in many aspects of life. Certainly not when the assets are human, intangible and unregimentable.

So the government wants to dictate that local government should pour funds into local arts  What's the point of shiny new arts centres when the pressure doesn't come from the people but from above - and from bureaucrats in London. So much for the idea of "redressing imbalance". If there's a solid artistic foundation in any particular area, fair enough, but we don't need more horrors like the National Centre for Popular Music, which cost £15 million nearly 20 years ago, and which folded within 18 months.

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