What if the Arts Council cut the Royal Opera House?

The Royal Opera House, home of the Royal Ballet. Photo: Rob Moore
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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What I’m going to say now is not a negative reflection on the Royal Opera House’s achievements, inventiveness and acknowledgement of its audiences.On the contrary, it’s complimenting them.

However, despite the economy apparently having bottomed out, the cuts to the arts are not going to stop with potentially disastrous consequences for our cultural grassroots, and the Arts Council is the only national body with the network and budget to help us through this period.

Next month, the Royal Opera House gets its new leader, with Alex Beard arriving as chief executive in succession to Tony Hall. He will be paid £250,000, admittedly £100,000 less than his predecessor, and no-one is saying he won’t earn it, by normal corporate standards. And our good arts leaders are every inch worth what CEOs in the private sector command. But, these wages are being paid by taxpayers, not shareholders.

The time has come to reassess our public funding of institutions that have their own earning power, according to all the latest figures.

This year, 2013/14, the ROH is being paid £25,787,567 by the arts council, the biggest single recipient getting a huge chunk of ACE’s total spending money of just over £1 billion, about 7%. Next year, Covent Garden is due to get slightly more, £26,430,076.

Historically, ACE has put its biggest pile of chips on the gilt-edged national companies  (what used to be called The Flagships) and they are mostly in London. Between them, the ROH, English National Opera, the National Theatre and the Southbank Centre get over £81 million this year from ACE. With the Royal Shakespeare Company (based still in Stratford but dearly wanting to have a London home once more) these five get a quarter of ACE’s annual revenue funding.

Yet, by simply being in London these organisations are by far the most likely to get most of the private funding available in this country. Arts & Business reckons London is getting 90% of what the government calls philanthropy and what is actually sponsorship – though the arts council reckons the really figure is more like 70%.

The elitism argument strides into play, particularly with regard to Covent Garden, whose artform is the choice of a tiny minority of the British public. Despite the few Travelex-sponsored seats available at cut prices, mostly the prices for an opera or ballet at our leading house are way beyond the means of most of the taxpayers who are paying for it.

When Alan Davey, ACE’s chief executive, was challenged on this in a blog exchange on Guardian Professional recently, he ducked the issue. [pullquote]What enormous possibilities would present themselves if ACE's chairman, Peter Bazalgette, was to announce that the Royal Opera House would no longer receive any revenue funding[/pullquote]

“When we come to make decisions, we’re looking to achieve a balanced portfolio and a whole ecology that can work well.” he said. “In the end it’s about creating conditions in the whole country for great art to be made for people to enjoy that art”.

About the time Alex Beard first officially sits behind his desk at the ROH, the arts council will be announcing details of its future funding in line with the latest government cuts.

What enormous possibilities would present themselves if ACE's chairman, Peter Bazalgette, was to announce that the Royal Opera House would no longer receive any revenue funding, it would need to raise it from the stupendous private funding availability DCMS keep telling us there is in the capital, and that £216 million a year would be used for non-metropolitan arts operations of the excellence the arts council expects from all its clients, but will nevertheless have to be cut?

And what more could be done if that subsidy is removed form all four of the London-based flagships, £81 million going to theatres, concert halls, museums and galleries, dance companies and the rest?

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