TAITMAIL ENO and the superclusters

So the deal has been done and after the angst-ridden omnishambles of a year ago ENO will after all go to Manchester as first mooted. It might be a brilliant move despite its ominous beginnings.

The announcement coincides with new research from the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) showing that a cultural levelling up is happening, not because of but despite government policy and through local and regional initiatives and partnerships of the kind that have opened up this Greater Manchester way out of the corner ENO was forced into by the Arts Council on November 3 last year.
 
The then culture secretary had ordered ACE to shift at least £24m out of London to the regions in Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” manoeuvre. With a day’s notice ACE told ENO that it was to lose all its £12m a year National Portfolio funding as of April 2023, and if it ever wanted to get a sniff of subsidy again it would have to move out of London. Say to Manchester.
 
Unsurprisingly there was a furious pushback from the company and its many supporters resulting in a bit of a reprieve. Part of the conundrum ACE seemed not to have taken into account in its response to Nadine Dorries’s command is that ENO owns the Coliseum where all its  productions are staged – the gift of David Mellor when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury. In the conversation which should have happened before the announcement it was conceded that the company would keep its London home where it would continue to make productions. And there would be more time to find a regional base. And there would be financial assistance to make it happen. And there might even be a return to the National Portfolio, murmured ACE, we’ll see…. In July this year the target date of July 2026 was changed to a more realistic March 2029.
 
In fact, this move fits the mission ENO has set itself as “the nation’s gateway opera company” which has always wanted to develop outside of London but been restricted by ACE rules, giving opera sung in English to promote accessibility and is “committed to changing perceptions of opera and to create 'a system change' for audiences, performers and communities”. 
 
But the past year has been bloody, and ENO’s music director, Martyn Brabbins, lifted his head from the minutiae of creating a complicated prospectus he had been poring over, and abruptly quit when he was told that at least 19 members of the orchestra and chorus would have to go.

ENO has put its fury behind it an accepted the inevitable. CEO Stuart Murphy left in September as he was scheduled to and was replaced as interim CEO by Jenny Mollica, ENO's director of strategy who had joined the company from the Barbican only three years before. She has led the trawl of England for a suitable place and the partnerships that  would make it viable.

There was a shortlist which had come down to Birmingham, Liverpool
and Manchester. Liverpool was the favourite, Manchester the eventual winner, if that’s right pronoun. “Throughout our discussions with partners and stakeholders in Greater Manchester” said Mollica, pictured here, “we have been struck by an emerging vision for the future of ENO and operatic work in the city-region, defined by a shared ambition to open up new possibilities for opera in people’s lives. We look forward to embarking on new adventures with partners, artists and audiences across Greater Manchester as we create a range of operatic repertoire at a local, national and international scale, inspired by the extraordinary cultural vibrancy of Greater Manchester and its c
 
There will have to be great care taken not to tangle with the touring needs of Opera North - created a generation ago as originally the regional ENO - Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera, but the key phrase is “city-region”, because Manchester sprawls through Lancashire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Cheshire, only circumscribed to the east by the Pennines and the way open to negotiations on Merseyside to the west. 
 
Another irony in this irony-sprinkled story is that in 2008 there was an attempt by the then culture secretary to get a regional Royal Opera House established in Manchester’s Palace Theatre which came to nothing. But that culture secretary was Andy Burnham who now, as mayor of Greater Manchester, talks about “a shared vision (with ENO) for a future in our city-region, where they can continue making ground-breaking opera, foster new collaborations with artists across the north, and bring their award-winning learning and wellbeing programmes to communities here”.
 
Because there is a cultural ecology evolving outside the “supercluster” of London and the south-east which has been identified in this new PWC report, Geographies of Creativity. More exactly, what has been identified is the emergence of “microclusters” and “creative corridors” largely without political intervention, with the north-west emerging as a supercluster in its own right. Bev Craig, the youthful leader of Manchester City Council, is, of course, delighted. “The city has transformed itself over the last 30 years into one of Europe's fastest growing cities with the largest creative economy in Europe after London” she said. "We're a city that puts culture and the arts centre-stage and the impact of this can be seen in the audience numbers, range of venues, skills pipeline and local talent that already exists here in abundance”.
 
Greater Manchester is not alone, says the PEC report. Bristol has a firmly established film animation business community, led by Aardman, and Cardiff has a burgeoning film and TV industry. There are small independent creative operations clustering around, it says, the likes of Falkirk and Livingstone in Scotland, and the Thames Estuary stretching from Tilbury to Southend-on-Sea. 
 
“Clusters and microclusters of creative activity exist across the whole country, not just in the large urban centres” said Josh Siepel of the University of Sussex Business School and a contributor to the report. “They could play a unique role in reducing the UK’s regional inequality”. Microclusters are fuelling growth, he says, in the larger creative clusters, “making an argument for policy intervention at the hyperlocal level to bolster activity already taking place”.  
 
It may be that Nadine Dorries had foresight she is seldom credited with in commanding ACE to slash its London funding at short notice and take drastic action on its clients, but however accidental the result it could mean a new ecology for the arts, particularly the performing arts, in which regional government is tasked with overseeing partnership arrangements to bring established arts of international standard as well as contemporary work to their varied venues, and encourage innovation and co-production within the geographies of not just England but the UK.
 
As for Manchester, Burnham never needed convincing: “Greater Manchester’s world-renowned history of radical art, activism, and affecting change, and the cultural renaissance taking place across our towns and cities, makes it the ideal home for the ENO.”

Search for trustees: https://www.vitalxposure.co.uk/new-trustees/
 

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