The shenanigans at English National Opera would seem to be an obvious vindication of Micawber's advice regarding fiscal contentedness. We are entitled to ask, however: to what extent should an arts organisation be ruled by the dictates of the free market?
In his article yesterday in the Guardian, Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, defended their decision to remove ENO from its portfolio of 686 supported arts organisations, instead moving it to an almost exclusive ‘must try harder’ category of its own. In doing so it cut ENO’s funding from £17,470,853 to £12.38m, whilst also providing a transition grant that amounts to about £5.5m over 15/16–16/17. There is no certainty that the organisation will receive any support at all beyond 2017. The reasons he gave for this action include: that ENO has repeatedly failed to live within its budget, having been bailed-out by ACE on a number of occasions; that it has failed to innovate rapidly enough (outreach work, live streaming etc.); and that its audience levels are low.
The problem of attendance, on the face of it at least, seems clear. In 2010/11 their auditorium was 80% full; in 2011/12, 71%; 2012/13 a miserable 66%; and in 2013/14 it was 75%. Royal Opera House, whose success was trumpeted by Darren Henley, runs consistently above 90%. The question is: to what extent do such numbers matter?
With a capacity of 2359, ENO’s home, the London Coliseum, is always going to be difficult to fill. Would we, for example, be having this argument if ENO’s auditorium was half the size, with the organisation having either a) to turn punters away b) raise prices to keep numbers down c) put on more performances to cope with the demand? If we take two other major arts companies in handsome receipt of ACE funding, the National Theatre and RSC, these companies have capacities of 1150 (main auditorium) and 1040 respectively. Both receive funding at similar levels as ENO used to get: £17,217,000 for the NT: £15.447,000 for RSC. They have attendance figures in excess of 90%, which maybe isn't surprising given the venue sizes. I understand that Royal Opera House achieves its 90%+ figures on a venue size not much smaller than ENO. I suspect there are rather complicated reasons for this, however—historically ROH has had more status, more pulling-power and the ability to attract rich concertgoers that its more proletarian cousin.
In terms of ENO’s apparent failure to innovate, it is certainly true that ROH was, for example, ahead in broadcasting its performances in cinemas. Other regional companies also do excellent and laudable outreach work. I want to see ENO do more of these things too. We have, however, to ask ourselves: what is an opera company for? It is to mount performances of operas, by which I mean live opera. I, personally, am not that interested in watching an opera on a cinema screen and no amount of outreach work is going to make me feel better if the live performance I am attending is execrable. The irony is that, amidst all of this hoopla over the parlous state of ENO’s finances, it is not failing in its artistic mission (see, for example, its lauded performances Peter Grimes in 2014 Mastersingers in 2015 or the recent The Force of Destiny).
That ENO is artistically healthy makes it all the more inexcusable that cutting funding is being presented as a way of making the company more viable. In fact, the cuts are having the opposite effect. There are threats, for example, to cut the pay of the the Chorus by 25%, with many believing that this is the prelude to replacing it with part-timers. As representatives from the Chorus of ROH pointed out yesterday, it is an approach that would lead only to further financial ruin.
The third factor being used to justify cutting ENO’s funding is that it has consistently failed to live within its budget. A recent estimate puts the figure of ACE bailouts at £33m over the last 20 years. Let’s think about this for a moment. A company that is mounting one of the most expensive art forms, isn’t doing such a bad job with audience attendance and is receiving rave reviews is running over budget by an average of £1.65m per year. Let’s – just for once – also give management the benefit of the doubt; after all the brightest minds have been trying to bring down the cost of running ENO for years. Could it be that they have failed because the Arts Council have, in fact, underestimated the cost of producing live opera at the Coliseum?
My profound hope is that all is not what it seems in this Arts Council funding farce. Perhaps the real aim is to frighten ENO a little so that they make some savings and then welcome them back into the portfolio fold with a realistic level of funding. Whilst this opera buffa plays out, however, let’s pray that it doesn’t result in the destruction of one of our finest opera companies.
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