For the first time in over 20 years of writing about the arts and considerably longer operating as a journalist, this critic was literally struck dumb.
Last week’s column covered the swingeing cuts to arts funding, particularly in London and even more so to opera. On Monday, Arts Council England Chief Executive, Darren Henley attempted to justify what to many had seemed a series of crass decisions via an article in The Guardian.
Some of his comments were literally unbelievable and are well worth exploring in greater detail.
Unlike so many in politics, who seemingly regard the arts as a waste of money, Henley should understand the issues better than most having spent the majority of his career working in the field of music and in a series of board-level roles supporting (Conservative) arts initiatives.
Many reading his opinion piece will conclude that the man who has issued a death warrant to English National Opera has determinedly forgotten his roots and might have political ambitions in the not-too-distant future. He even writes like a politician, favouring circumlocutions and flowery inventions over direct language.
You or I would say that ENO has had its funding removed but been offered a limited amount to relocate out of London—Manchester has been suggested although according to its Mayor Andy Burnham isn’t interested.
This is been translated into “Arts Council England recently declined to offer English National Opera (ENO) a place in its next national portfolio of funded organisations. Instead, we proposed a package for it to relocate and reimagine itself outside London.”
Quite why a remarkably successful and world-renowned century old institution that has been working very hard on outreach and communality should need to “reimagine itself outside London” would take a lot of justification.
Even Henley admits that, “we know that alongside its acclaimed repertoire of operas, ENO also has a great education programme connecting primary and secondary schoolchildren with opera, and it has created innovative programmes such as ENO Breathe, a wellbeing initiative for people recovering from the effects of COVID-19.”
However, he wants to “support a bright, if different, future for ENO”. What is that future?
This is the bit that beggars belief in the context of the closure of a business that employs several hundred people either directly or indirectly and gives pleasure to tens of thousands each year.
“A new generation of audiences is embracing opera and music theatre presented in new ways: opera in car parks, opera in pubs, opera on your tablet.”
Nowhere does Mr Henley acknowledge that the arts generally, with ENO a prime example, are not only a wonderful advertisement for a country that is rapidly slipping into invisibility but they also provide a significant financial boost that far exceeds any funding that might have been offered by Arts Council England had it followed past precedent.
Using the kind of cynical non-sequiturs that ubiquitous but anonymous “spokesperson for number 10/11” loves so much, he attempts to justify this action by referring to amounts of money spent elsewhere, not necessarily pointing out that overall these are significantly lower when inflation is taken into account than funding in the past.
Attempting to take his proposal seriously, you would need a very big car park to take a full-scale orchestra, while the first violinist might not be as enthusiastic as Mr Henley about having his or her instrument warped during a thunderstorm, that is if the triangle isn’t hit by lightning.
One hopes that the minister at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has read Mr Henley’s article with pride. If so, then Ms Donnelan might like to think of equivalents for her other areas of responsibility.
Perhaps the England football team plus entourage, having just arrived in Qatar, might economise by foregoing their luxury hotels and limousines, instead purchasing their own tents and camping in the desert, walking to matches from their new homes and playing without boots, shinpads and sunblock?
On the digital side, rather than using those tiresome computers, perhaps the new thrust could be towards pencil and paper (pens being a bit too pricey).
It might also be good for Darren Henley to embrace his proposal and lead by example. The first step must be the closure of Arts Council England’s offices and relocation of all staff to the nearest car park.
While English National Opera has the resources and supporters to fight this insane decision, many smaller organisations have also been defunded and may disappear forever.
Others like the National Theatre have lost approximately 1/6 of their funding this year, following significant cuts and financial losses during the early period of the pandemic and, while it might survive, will do so in a greatly denuded state. This will cost jobs and lower the artistic ambition of a great flagship.
One hopes that the Shadow Culture Minister Lucy Powell will take up the cudgels on their behalf, since this cynical attitude towards culture could literally present an existential threat to the industry that we love.