Arts funding

Death of a choir

Always make your redundancy announcement when the people at the receiving end of it are on a high. This seems to be the favoured method of today’s managing executives, who perhaps imagine that adrenalin will somehow anaesthetise the blow of getting the sack. For the Cambridge student choir St John’s Voices, the news of its imminent disbanding and the redundancy of its director Graham Walker came just two minutes after the light was switched off at the end of a three-day recording session of Russian choral masterpieces last week. Does egalitarianism have to be promoted at the expense of up-and-running excellence? In a two-paragraph round-robin email to the choir that

Think flute-playing Sir Keir will rescue opera? Look at Labour-run Wales

A tale of two opera companies from the Land of Song. After its distinctly gamey new Cosi fan tutte, Welsh National Opera has sprung dazzlingly back to form with a new production of Benajmin Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice. It’s directed by Olivia Fuchs, in collaboration with the circus artists of NoFit State, and in a word, it’s masterful. Fuchs’s Serenissima is a city of shadow, its landmarks glimpsed distantly in smudged, restless scraps of black and white film. The tourists and locals wear monochrome period dress; only Aschenbach (Mark Le Brocq) is in a noncommittal grey. The colour has drained from his world and from the peripheries of

Our theatre critic applies to be director of the National Theatre

The director of the National Theatre will be stepping down in 2025. I’ve written to the chairman offering a new vision for Britain’s leading playhouse. Dear Sir Damon Buffini, I’m a reviewer of plays and a part-time theatre producer. In the past 20 years I’ve seen more than 2,000 shows, hundreds of them at your venue, and here is my plan to transform the NT. Britain’s dramatic heritage is the best in the world and our national theatre should meet that standard of excellence. Three simple reforms to start with. US stars crave the prestige offered by the NT. Each year we will hire half a dozen Oscar-winning actors One:

Art institutions should stop virtue-signalling about funding and focus on what they’re showing

The ethics of the private patronage of arts institutions has never been straightforward issue. But as the preoccupation with transparency and corporate responsibility has grown, wealthy benefactors can nowadays turn from pillars of respectable society to moral pariahs in the blink of an eye. Such is the fate of the fabulously rich Sackler family, major philanthropists with fingers in arts institutions across the UK, in the face of mounting criticism over its close links to Purdue Pharma, the family-owned US pharmaceuticals giant and maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin – the drug now the focus of outrage over the opioid epidemic that has made addicts of thousands in the US

Council of despair

Amid the general political turmoil, a flutter of hope has greeted the arrival of Sir Nicholas Serota as chairman of Arts Council England, an organisation of fading relevance. Sir Nick, grand impresario of the Tate galleries, started life as an Arts Council gofer in 1969, taught to hang pictures by the flamboyant David Sylvester, friend of Lucian Freud, Bacon and Giacometti. Sylvester was one of many outsized brains that fuelled the quango in its heyday. Think Stuart Hampshire, Alan Bullock, Marghanita Laski, Richard Hoggart. No one like that left now. Might Serota signal a revival? The omens are not auspicious. In the past 20 years, the Arts Council has shed

Top tips for UK-China trade: grab the cheque and sup with a long spoon

There are reasons why Theresa May might harbour doubts about the Hinkley Point nuclear project — chiefly its unproven French technology and the high probability of time and cost overruns — but the fear expressed by her aide Nick Timothy that ‘the Chinese could use their role to build weaknesses into computer systems which will allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will’ sounds — even to a Sino-cynic like me — far-fetched. As I wrote here during President Xi Jinping’s visit last year, ‘The least sinister thing about the Chinese is their money. A ten-digit cheque… even from China National Nuclear Corporation… does not carry a ‘backdoor’ listening

The arts need to be a little less indignant and a little more honest about funding

Last week, industry body UK Theatre reported that average theatre prices rose by more than five per cent across the UK, apparently to pick up the shortfall from funding cuts. It was an interesting read, but no great surprise. While public funding of the arts comes from an admirable social and ethical place – that beauty, poetry, tolerance and a sense of collective purpose are worth spending a few quid on (well that’s my take on it at least) – there’s no question that it brings a good fistful of bad stuff with it. A situation has developed, in the performing arts particularly, where tickets are routinely sold for considerably less

Dance has never addressed whether making money is a good or bad thing. It’s time to do so

A couple of weeks ago some dance instructors went to Westminster to coach MPs to shake their tushes for the cameras, while they promised to support a ‘dance manifesto’ for Britain. Since then the image of MPs twerking has stuck to the inside of my head like snail slime on my hands. I’ve scrubbed away with the mental Swarfega but I can still sense those lovely, lively honourable members of a certain age who feel they can best drum up public support for British dance by going onto the floor themselves. You might be surprised that there exists an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Dance in Westminster at all. The 20

Cutting the arts and decimating culture

Rationing Mammon emaciates the Muses. Plato knew it, and so does Polly Toynbee: it’s just simple cause and effect. And government cuts tend to be cyclical: seven fat years of abundance are invariably followed by lean years of famine. Unlike health and overseas development, the arts seem to have no divine right of exemption from the fiscal straitjacket presently being strapped around other departments of state: it is undeniably politically easier to cut Northern Ballet than hospital beds or malaria nets. But the suggestion that a reduction of £150 million amounts to little more than a slight nip‘n’tuck in a very fleshy sector is a little misleading. Certainly, there are

Spectator letters: John Major on James Goldsmith

The Goldsmith effect Sir: Much as I admire filial loyalty, I cannot allow Zac Goldsmith’s article about his father to go uncorrected (‘My dad saved the pound’, 28 February). Sir James Goldsmith was a formidable campaigner against the European Union and the euro currency, but at no point did he alter government policy. Zac Goldsmith suggests that I did not offer a referendum on membership of the euro currency out of conviction. This is wrong. I believed that any decision to abandon sterling — which I myself did not favour — was so fundamental that it would need national endorsement. On constitutional grounds some Cabinet members dissented, but many will

You can’t force low-income people to go to an art gallery or the theatre if they don’t want to

I went last week to see the justly praised production of Wagner’s The Mastersingers at English National Opera, and I didn’t see a single black face there, nor even much dark hair (except in the case of Melvyn Bragg who, though now greying a bit, still seems to have Ronald Reagan’s gift for keeping white hairs at bay). This chimed with the finding of the Warwick Commission on the arts in Britain that much the greater part of live-music audiences, theatre-goers and gallery visitors is old, white and middle-class. Even though this wasn’t actually the reason for the Arts Council’s drastic decision to curtail ENO’s funding — this was because

The new CEO of the Arts Council has been announced – Guardianistas won’t be happy

It is difficult to describe with equanimity the culture shock that has been administered to Arts Council England, the 69 year-old benefits office for the creative industries. Invented by Maynard Keynes to nurture the grass shoots of an English renaissance with a few quid here and there – £25,000 for Covent Garden, £2,000 for the LSO – ACE has burgeoned into a mighty quango that distributes £1.9 billion of public cash and £1.1 billion of lottery money over three years. It feeds not only the performing arts but museums, galleries, monuments, public libraries, poetry and pottery. It is a nanny state in miniature which, over the past generation, has become

Cutting all state funding to the arts would be monstrous

One of the best things about The Spectator is that it has no party line. As its dauntless refusal to compromise on Leveson Inquiry has shown, it is incomparably committed to the free speech of its writers. So only here could a humble arts blogger announce that this magazine’s editor, Fraser Nelson, was riproaringly, doltheatedly, cloven-foot-in-mouth wrong in his post on arts funding last week. On pretty much everything. Fraser’s right about one thing: Sajid Javid will make a great culture secretary, because unlike most culture bureaucrats, he gives a toss about staying solvent. Running culture by committee has always been a problem: the Department of Culture, Media and Sport

No, Sajid Javid isn’t a luvvie. That’s why he’ll be a great Culture Secretary

I am taken to task by the Guardian’s Media Monkey for celebrating Sajid Javid’s elevation (as per the poster above) a little too much – and not caring very much that the new Culture Secretary is no expert in the arts. It argues the following:- Javid’s lack of cultural hinterland – his Who’s Who entry lists no recreations – was acknowledged but relegated to the 14th paragraph of Fraser Nelson’s Telegraph profile (“he will stuggle to talk about his great love of the performing arts … It is certainly an odd casting – Javid’s expertise is in finance”) and the 23rd of Andrew Pierce’s huzzah in the Mail: “His knowledge of sport

Don’t believe the spin, this arts cut is a disaster

Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spending review rounds always work like this: officials choose three figures of increasing severity and ask those they fund to model what would happen should their funding be cut by the corresponding amounts. The organisations duly devote considerable resources to trying to work out what they could cut or stop doing entirely, worrying staff and donors and driving speculation in the press. Then the culture secretary of the day proudly announces that he or she has fought culture’s corner and we all now only have to cut by the lower figure. Cue grateful thanks in public, and private pain as the agreed changes

It’s madness to slash the British Museum’s budget

The best argument in favour of state funding of the arts was made in the middle of the 18th century. In 1753 an Act of Parliament established the personal collection of Sir Hans Sloane as a national resource, ‘to be preserved and maintained not only for the Inspection and Entertainment of the learned and the curious, but for the general Use and Benefit of the Public’. But a dark cloud looms over the British Museum today. Rumour suggests (and ministers won’t deny) that the Chancellor is keen to lop a few million quid from its budget in the 2015/16 spending review which is due to be published this month. Culture

Wedgwood Museum: At risk

We are fairly certain that the late Robert Maxwell never met the even later Josiah Wedgwood, but Cap’n Bob’s nefarious legacy is now being keenly felt by Wedgwood’s descendants. For it was in the aftermath of Maxwell’s plundering of the Mirror Group that the Pension Protection Fund was established to compensate pensioners in the wake of insolvency. And now this legislation is being used to asset-strip one of the great museums of England. On the southern edge of Stoke-on-Trent stands the Wedgwood Museum, dedicated to ‘The People Who Have Made Objects of Great Beauty from the Soils of Staffordshire’. A museum that in 2009 won the £100,000 Art Fund Prize

Funding: Local heroes

I was acting and directing at Helmsley Arts Centre last week, in a little piece of ‘café theatre’ performed in the bar to an audience of only 50. But it was a sell-out every night and, I hope, a light-hearted distraction for the citizens of my Yorkshire town from all that gloomy talk about cuts, more cuts — and who deserves to be cut most. I was acting and directing at Helmsley Arts Centre last week, in a little piece of ‘café theatre’ performed in the bar to an audience of only 50. But it was a sell-out every night and, I hope, a light-hearted distraction for the citizens of

Director’s cut

In the spring of 2008 I went on a press trip with the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, to Hadrian’s wall. It was one of a series of jaunts planned by the BM in the run-up to its great Hadrian exhibition, a little Roman holiday. But though the wall was fascinating, I spent most of my time inspecting the director. He’s charming and universally admired — but also enigmatic. What are his politics? What does he do for fun? Nobody seems to know. So I watched him at Segedunum in Newcastle, talking to local grandees, charming, mercurial, alert. I watched him out by Housesteads fort, chatting to the