Peter Hoskin

Money for art’s sake

Money for art's sake
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On Tuesday, the Spectator's Clemency Burton-Hill wrote an impassioned post on how the Arts Council of England's recent funding settlement could spell death for numerous theatrical companies across the country.  Many media outlets have run similar pieces – pleading the case for this theatre or that – but few have been as persuasive as Richard Morrison's excellent article in this weekend's Times 'What's On' section.

Morrison reveals that the funding settlement will almost certainly put an end to the Birmingham Opera Company.  Under the direction of Graham Vick, this company has become a major critical darling but, more importantly, it defies the argument that opera – or even art more generally – is an elitist, detached and irrelevant pursuit.  As Morrison puts it:

“Titillating critics isn't its prime point.  Far more important is Vick's policy of involving local amateurs – hundreds of them – alongside professionals.  This is truly opera 'for the people, by the people'.  Given that Vick also makes a point of casting his shows to reflect Birmingham's ethnic diversity, it would be hard to think of a better exemplar of the Government's policy of making the arts accessible to everyone ....  Yet just before Christmas the Arts Council told BOC that its £324,000 grant would be withdrawn.  The company also gets a £197,000 grant from Birmingham City Council, but it can't survive on that alone.  The most radical and challenging voice on the UK opera scene is about to be silenced by bureaucratic decree.”

Given that many other companies whose survival is threatened – such as Richmond's Orange Tree Theatre – similarly combine artistic and social relevance, then there's clearly something wrong with the way the Arts Council has framed its funding settlement.  The Council have been asked to explain their thinking by Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre, but – revealingly – he was "not satisfied" by the answers he received.

The Arts Council of England is a taxpayer-funded organisation and is obliged to spend public money responsibly and effectively.  In this case, it is failing to do so.  However, the Council still has a final opportunity to redeem itself by not ratifying the current funding settlement at a meeting later this week – if the Council members do ratify it, then they'll find themselves with a lot to answer for.