The culture sector has been thrown into its own sad version of Cinderella. Unlike those exemplars, this seasonal tale shows no signs of a happy ending and could even prove terminal.
As a recap, Britain’s wicked stepmother, let’s call her Nadine, has been hard at devious work, assisted by her ugly sister daughters, collectively referred to in this story as Arts Council England. Between them, they have robbed plucky little Cinderella of everything but her virtue and left the aspiring heroine impoverished and denuded.
The question that everyone must now be asking is where are we going to find a fairy godmother or a Prince Charming to save the day and make Cinders and her many admirers happy again?
If the UK government is unwilling to provide necessary funding and Arts Council England gets turned on by community endeavours in the local village hall and sparkly lights on the Lancashire coast rather than artistic excellence, this really could be an existential threat to every element of culture.
The problem is greatly exacerbated by events of the last few years. Not only has government funding being cut, but the dreadful pandemic cruelly killed hundreds of thousands in our country and also rocked the finances of those involved in the performing arts to the point where they are reduced to virtual penury. Many staff have lost jobs, others have deserted their respective industries and more cuts are going to follow unless new money can be found.
In recent weeks, this column has inevitably focused on the English National Opera in the wake of the withdrawal of its funding, but other star bodies have either lost everything or face cuts that will inevitably lead to mass unemployment across the sector.
If those that should be providing funding won’t, then the only alternative is to find it elsewhere. This is not going to be easy now with inflation running at over 10%, most businesses struggling as we enter what is predicted to be the longest recession on record and individuals who would dearly love to visit theatres on a regular basis struggling to afford even cut-price tickets.
However, following various other models, there is a prospective Prince Charming who might find the attractions of UK artistic institutions impossible to resist. The problem is do we really want him?
You do not need to drill down very far to discover that most of Britain’s largest industrial groups are now owned by overseas investors and the same applies to the majority of Premier League football clubs. If the packages were sold correctly, there has to be every prospect that such investors could quickly become seduced by the benefits that they could derive from investing in our arts.
From the point of view of a real Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the Qatar Sovereign Wealth Fund, a barely disguised Chinese state, a Russian oligarch or a stream of American hedge fund owners, the amounts involved to re-float, say, ENO or the National Theatre would be small change. In return, investors could use these new connections to artswash their images and possibly make a little bit of money on the side, if their luck was in.
From the other end of the equation, arts organisations could be fully funded, present the type of work that they have always aspired to featuring big casts, long rehearsal periods and the kinds of sets that audiences will drool over, while employees on both the artistic and administrative sides could be properly paid and offered job security.
How could anything go wrong?
Before they start courting these saviours, our cultural leaders need to take a step back and think about potential downsides. The government gets into a tizzy any time that a Chinese organisation tries to get an even stronger hold on any influential part of our society. To compound the risk, perhaps the newly branded Huawei National Theatre might feel obliged to programme the odd play or musical promoting the brand?
Similarly, the soft power that comes with artistic influence could be used to benefit the Qatari government or greedy hedge fund owners rather than our own dear kingdom.
Taken a stage further, while one might accept money on the basis that no strings are attached, there could be a problem much further down the line when a wealthy sponsor refuses to allow any gay or trans individuals to be involved with the organisation, on the basis that they are criminals in its home country.
There has to be a better way. That is for the UK government to provide more generous funding directly or, at the very least, encourage potential Prince Charmings a.k.a. Angels to support culture through more generous tax breaks or other incentives.
Only then, will today’s miserable Cinderella get married and live happily ever after.