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Arts Council England – penalising excellence

A snap assessment of the Arts Council’s major grant cuts – broken here this morning – is that Liz Forgan and Alan Davey have gone down the obvious route, top-slicing their biggest gas guzzlers in order to sustain the lower levels of ecology.

If that were the case, it could be justified – even applauded.
But the ACE has fallen into its usual traps of prejudice and favouritism.
Of the five top grants, only ENO’s near-standstill can be seen in a rational light. The Coliseum has recovered greatly in the past two years and any loss of funds at this point – especially when its own fund-raising operation is rudimentary – would have risked killing a patient in the recovery room by premature withdrawal of medication.

The decision to apply the maximum permitted cut – 15 percent to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden smacks of the ACE’s old fear of ‘elitism’ – a word that arose with tedious repetition during last week’s heated grants debate. The ROH has been hit mainly because its profile is wrong for the image the ACE wants to project – young, diverse, non-London.
The two theatre companies – the National and RSC – were penalised for reasons even more obtuse. The RSC is region-based and has one of the youngest audience bases in the land. Nevertheless, both have taken top-line hits.

All four companies are on top of their game, producing work that claims worldwide attention and attracts the finest artists in their field. Why cut them now? The only way to interpret that decision is bureaucratic convenience – easier to save money with a few big cuts  than a lot of small ones – and an inbuilt suspicion of hard-won success.
English National Ballet, presently enjoying its greatest TV exposure on BBC4, is penalised by 15 percent. 
These bad decisions are compounded by one that is simply the worst.
The South Bank Centre, Britain’s largest fund guzzler, was originally protected from the worst of the cuts by virtue of its favoured-child relationship with the Arts Council, which saved it from privatisation when Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council. There was a good deal of debate about this at the ACE and the final execution, left in Alan Davey’s hands, was harsher than the council intended. Nevertheless, although the South Bank is claiming a 15 percent cut, it will return to present funding levels in just two years.
One opera boss, normally restrained, told me this morning that the South Bank grant of almost £20 million was ‘a national scandal’. The South Bank does not originate or innovate art. It merely organises. It is a clearing house, a receptacle. Yet it has received better treatment from the ACE than hundreds of inventive, imaginative, progressive and educative institutions.
That, I’m inclined to agree, is a scandal.
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