TAITMAIL How Nad raised the ENO stakes for ACE
Just when you thought the ENO row was quietening down for some serious beer and sandwiches negotiating, up pops guess who to raise the stakes again. Turns out we’re not just talking about ENO’s survival, but the Arts Council’s too.
And it’s none other than Nadine Dorries, at a loose end while she waits by her letter box for the peerage Boris promised her, who has taken to Twitter to raise the volume a few notches.
In November ACE revealed its three-year funding plans for 2023-26, National Portfolio plans in which, as reported here on November 11, ENO would not appear unless they moved out of London. They would lose all their £12.8m annual subsidy but might get £17m over three years if they did as they were told.
ACE laid about London’s institutions dramatically in this spending round, with the Royal Opera taking a cut and the Donmar, the Hampstead and the Gate also losing their whole subvention, all as a result of the government instruction to ACE to cut its spending in London by £24m. And it was the putative Baroness Dorries who issued the instruction.
Which makes her Twitter remarks on the ENO issue all the more curious.
Dorries had been put at No 1 in The Stage’s annual 100 “most influential individual in the arts” list, the first time the paper had put someone whose influence had been negative at the top. “Not only did one-time culture secretary Nadine Dorries take a wrecking ball to opera and new writing” went The Stage’s encomium, “she also - for good measure - demolished the arm’s-length principle of arts funding and with it the authority of the Arts Council” (she has no truck with the arm’s length principle and doesn’t see the point in the Arts Council).
And Dorries, who was Boris Johnson’s culture secretary for nine days short of a year until last September, has taken her being awarded the highest slot as an accolade. "I’ve topped The Stage 100 for moving @ace_national funding out of London to regions in the country where not a penny is received to support the arts as part of levelling up and blamed for lazy, politically motivated decision making at ACE, who shockingly cut £16 million ENO grant" she tweeted in a partly factual blast, adding confusingly that the cuts had been “pulled as a stunt to try [to] reverse levelling up and funding being transferred to poorer communities in the north of England”.
On which ENO and its chair Harry Brunjes - who had already warned that if the ACE decision is not revised ENO could be closed by Easter - have leapt with glee, and with a little reading between the lines, to welcome La Dorries’s comments and confirm the company’s commitment to levelling up “to help bring opera to everyone around the country”, as long as it doesn’t involve ENO moving to Manchester, and gives him the chance to cite ENO’s successful Breathe programme in which they work with the NHS on a wellbeing programme for those recovering from Covid, now at risk thanks to the cut. And the bottom line: “The former Secretary of State’s comments highlight the continued threat to the ENO’s future as a direct consequence of ACE’s decision making”: says Brunjes. “In the absence of an opera strategy, we urgently ask ACE to rethink”.
There’s the rub: there does seem to be no coherent opera strategy, and it looks as if Dorries might have a point in the levelling up policy being effectively sabotaged in this art form. ENO’s ambition to get a reversal of the rule that said they couldn’t tour in England is dashed (which might have been part of those beer and sandwiches sessions), so no regional touring for them; Glyndebourne has been cut by half so that its entire autumn touring season has had to be scrapped, so no performances in Liverpool, Canterbury, Norwich or Milton Keynes as planned (the elitist, as some call it, summer festival in Sussex is not affected); WNO gets an ACE grant to tour in England, but that’s been cut by 35% so Liverpool is removed from their itinerary (Liverpool could be in the orbit of a Manchester based ENO); even the flagship Royal Opera House takes a 9% cut which its CEO Alex Beard says he hopes won’t affect its participation programmes of dance, theatre craft and singing schools across the country.
Instead, ACE are putting their eggs into the English Touring Opera basket, which gets a 22% uplift in exchange for committing to “a serious feasibility study into… moving out of London”.
So what’s going on here? David Karlin of the website Bachtrack has crunched some numbers. The cuts ACE has made has allowed it to give a 15% uplift to the survivors, which include Opera North and Birmingham Opera which both get tiny increases, and a couple of small companies, OperaUpClose and Pegasus, have been added to the portfolio. But overall funding for opera is 11% down, for dance 12% up, and it’s the bigger companies, with their touring experience, their large but efficient operations (now streamlined post-Covid). prestige and their mobility, that have been at best hamstrung by ACE’s choice of priorities.
So whether this is anti-elitism in the Arts Council, machiavellianism on the part of the chairman Nick Serota or the CEO Darren Henley, or just a hurried and botched gory shambles, that thing that has been under threat many times over the last nearly 80 years looks like being in the greatest peril yet: the old arm’s length principle, the idea that an independent government funded body should decide how our culture is subsidised, rather than here-today-gone-tomorrow (or in 356 days) politicians.
The Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre joint bosses, Claire Walker and Hannah Essex, are in no doubt about it, as they told The Stage: “The Arts Council was delivering on a decision that was set by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Fundamentally it was a political decision… they were told to cut London”.
And the Tory MP Bob Neill said bluntly: “While it is true [that] funding decisions like this are the responsibility of the Arts Council, ministers should stop using it as a cat’s paw and and hiding behind its status as an arm’s-length body. The die was cast by Whitehall diktat...”