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Silly season: Stop funding Covent Garden, says arts commentator

Simon Tait, who has been writing about arts funding since before Noah’s flood, woke up today with a brainwave: stop funding the Royal Opera House and no-one else need take a cut.

Er, not quite.

ROH receives £25 million of the ACE’s £1 billion budget, a mere pinprick. And the instant abolition of state funding would prompt such severe changes at the flagship organisation that smaller companies all over the land would feel the knock-on effects.

Not a good idea. The proposal I have put on the political table is to accelerate the privatisation of the ROH over the next 5-8 years, enabling an efficient transition to a status more like the Met’s and liberating the organisation from its last obligations to state and nation.


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  1. Hear, hear. Phasing-in a new regime would be far more sensible than simply pulling the plug.

    The privatisation of the ROH over the next 5-8 years would be a positive step, especially if congruent with changes in tax arrangements for donations so that donors’ and sponsors’ contributions do not end up effectively being topsliced by HMRC as they are at present.

    Why only the ROH? Why not follow a similar strategy for all arts organisations in receipt of more than an arbitrary figure of, say, £1.5 millions per annum from ACE? The problem I see with organisations in receipt of large contributions from ACE (i.e. taxpayers) is that the money is not perceived and valued as “real money” which has to be earned – it is considered an automatic entitlement like collecting £200 when you pass GO on a Monopoly board. The annual lump of cash seems to encourage mushrooming of admin staff numbers, and much of the rest gets swallowed up by outgoings to highly paid conductors and soloists. I am sure the founding fathers of the Arts Council never considered the funding would be used to give visiting conductors and soloists so many thousands or tens of thousands, sometimes more than the whole of the orchestra gets paid.

  2. Gary Carpenter says:

    The ROH serves a valuable diplomatic service as a means of entertaining foreign dignitaries, business people, politicians and envoys. It persuades otherwise cynical regimes that the British might after all be both cultured and civilised; that mankind’s highest ideals and aspirations are supported at the most senior level. It has a positive, peaceful function. It may well have prevented hostilities – even if only over an interval glass of champagne and smoked salmon butty. So redefine it as a weapon, put it under the remit of the MOD or as a hospitality function suite for the Foreign Office if ‘weapon’ is a step too far. Either way, its budget would be significantly increased; the ACE funds might be released into the wider artistic community (I know, I know…) and everyone would be a winner!

    • London ranks 7th in the world for opera performances per year. (See Operabase.) I’m sure this plays a significant role in cultural diplomacy — along with the worldwide efforts of the British Council. Washington D.C., by contrast, ranks 182nd in the world for opera performances per year. I’ve heard stories of diplomats in Washington wanting to attend an opera only to find the next performance of the so-called “Washington National Opera” is months away. On the other hand, Washington does not need cultural diplomacy. They keep a very large fleet of B-52s at a base near the city and simply blow the shit out of anyone who gives them any lip.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        But then the same source says the city with the most opera performances per year is Vienna and the country with the most performances per capita is – Austria. Ouch! And yet you spend so much time online telling us that Austria is the epicenter of evil. It cant be that civilized and art loving! So now what is it?

        • Actually, I use most of my posts to discuss public arts funding and I use Germany and Austria as stellar examples. I have never described Austria as the epicenter of evil. Mr. Schaefer’s distorted view is shaped by his foolishness and ethnocentricty. I hope readers will forgive me if I continue to ignore his ignorant rants.

  3. The Met’s tickets are 4 to 5 times more expensive than the ROH’s. And most of the best seats are given to priority subscribes who can only qualify through very large donations. Almost all of the front, orchestra level seats have brass name plates on their backs named after big donors. It’s as if the wealthy literally own the seats. (On the other hand, orienting the audience’s demographic toward the wealthy would be more consistent with the traditions of the Anglo-American class system. It is, after all, a “Royal” Opera House. )

    The ROH would also likely require much more money. The Met’s 325 million dollar budget for its 7 month season is is over twice those of corresponding European houses which average 150 million for seasons that last four months longer. Even though the wealthy at the Met prefer to service themselves luxuriously with lavish sets and star singers, European houses are often thought to represent higher quality.

    From a larger perspective, the UK’s public funding system is part of the country’s social democracy which is a genuinely “noble” achievement very much worth preserving.

  4. Judith Bingham says:

    I may be wrong, but I thought the total ACE budget was 342 million, with another 5% cut on the way. A billion would be nice!

    • £1bn includes ACE Lottery funds.

    • Here’s what the ACE website says: “Between 2011 and 2015, we will invest £1.4 billion of public money from government and an estimated £1 billion from the National Lottery.”

      That is 2.4 billion Pounds over a five year period, which on average is 480 million Pounds per year. (That’s 752 million dollars per year.)


      Does Arts Council England literally mean England? Or are there separate funding systems for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland?

      On the basis of England’s 53 million population, 752 million per year is far above US spending, but well below the per capita spending by most other European countries. I don’t know the numbers for private giving for the arts in the UK, which would be significant since the Commonwealth countries use a hybrid system of public and private funding.

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