Early last week, hours after Arts Council England detailed its first wave of funding cuts, an anonymous polemic appeared on a generally respectable arts website.
Under the headline ‘who earns £630,000 at the Royal Opera House?’ it unfurled a red carpet of top salaries in major arts institutions, contrasting them unfavourably with the relatively frugal wages earned by senior Arts Council staff.
The figures were all available in public reports and none was strikingly new. What caught the eye was the acerbic tone in a usually sedate publication, and the absolute prejudice. The ROH was attacked for paying 76 salaries above £60,000 while the ACE was praised, somehow, for paying 71 at that rate. Not much difference as far as I could see. However, the ACE was facing a 50 percent cut in administrative costs ‘which are likely to involve jobs’.
The ACE, it was stated, was ‘a model of transparency’ while the opera house was not. Almost every paragraph in the article was tilted in favour of the ACE and against the companies it is supposed to support. The website, www.artsdesk.com, is owned by a collective of arts critics and journalists, none of whom was brave enough to put a name to this odd piece. Senior arts figures suggested privately to me that the article was planted by the Arts Council or one of its subsidiaries with a view to deflecting criticism from the miserable performance of its chair and chief executive during the government’s spending review.
Alan Davey, the ACE chief executive, took a £16,000 pay rise to £191,000 last year - a time when most arts chiefs took a freeze or a cut. This went unmentioned in the unsigned article.
This weekend, the story got a second wind when the Sunday Times devoted page three to the story, laying in to the Opera House for its fat-cat pay. The facts are less clear-cut.
ROH music director Antonio Pappano’s £630,000 salary is less than half of James Levine’s $1.8 million at the Metropolitan Opera – and for a much greater commitment. Tony Hall’s chief executive pay of £390,000 is a fraction of Peter Gelb’s $1.5 million at the Met. Both are well within the going rate for the job and neither is a secret, so why is the Sunday Times fussed?
Once again, rumour has it that the ACE has been seeping malice about the ROH in the hope of saving its own top jobs and securing its role in the coming years of cuts. True or not, it’s a seedy situation – and one I may get asked about when I give evidence to the House of Commons select committee on Culture, Media and Sport this week. Watch this space.