Arts Council England pits London against regions in assault on culture

Arts Council England’s (ACE) latest funding scheme is a massive attack on the arts. Under the guise of a regional “race to the top”, major London-based arts organizations have been starved of funding and stripped of National Portfolio Organization (NPO) status in a devastating act of cultural vandalism.

Major arts organizations like the English National Opera (ENO) will lose all funding unless they move out of the capital.

English National Opera is based in the historic London Coliseum, pictured here in 2004. [Photo by Mike Peel / CC BY-SA 4.0]

Organizations requesting or reapplying for assistance are grappling with a long-term decline in government funding for the arts and arts education. This was compounded by the government’s willful neglect of culture and the arts at the onset of the COVID pandemic. Venues that have struggled with the impact of the lockdown are now facing catastrophic increases in running costs.

Tension was already high, before the announcement of ACE’s 2023-26 budget. Last week’s announcement generated further disruption. Scheduled for October 26, it was suspended with just 24 hours’ notice.

The ACE is nominally an ‘independent’ funding body from central government, but the delay has revealed the reality. On October 25, ACE tweeted: “Following decisions with @DCMS [the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport]we have agreed to delay the announcement” of the budget.

Credited with the cabinet reshuffle, even though Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan didn’t budge, ACE was doing as it was told. He couldn’t even confirm a rescheduled date, only saying “it will now happen as soon as possible in the next few days.”

ACE’s weak “we feel for everyone” rang hollow. For London-based organisations, the delay was even more agonizing. Former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries had flagged a program to cut funding from London in the name of ‘upgrading’. This was ostensibly to distribute funding regionally, but forecasts of a 20% budget cut have fueled expectations of vast cuts to capital bodies and demands for relocation.

The budget was finally announced on November 4, with Donelan advancing Dorries’ plan. ACE’s program is in line with its plan to transfer £32m of funding out of London. ACE President Sir Nicholas Serota said: “We’ve just had to make some awkward choices about where we fund the most.

ACE strongly promoted as positives: the wider distribution of funding across England; the total of 276 organizations receiving funding for the first time; the average annual total funding budget of £446,264,485 (compared to £377,550,919 for 2022-23); the fact that 990 organizations must be funded, including 950 NPOs (an increase of 119 since 2018-22); and that 266 London organizations (+13) are among the beneficiaries.

None of this hides the realities. The promotion of some regional arts organizations is used to cover a negligible overall budget increase, while individual organizations face static budgets equivalent to reductions in real terms. London and regional bodies are clashing, while London institutions have suffered punitive budget cuts.

Organizations of national and international importance and renown are the victims of Serota’s “odious decisions”. The Institute of Contemporary Arts will lose nearly a quarter of its grant (£678,310 from £878,310), while the Serpentine Galleries will receive just £708,000 instead of this year’s £1,215,690.

London-based but largely national organizations have seen cuts that clearly baffle them. The English Folk Dance and Song Society, which has lost nearly a third of its non-profit funding, released a statement saying it “is physically located in London, but has always been and continues to be a national organization… the only national organization that promotes folk music and dance at the heart of English cultural life.

The Royal Opera House (ROH) is facing a 9% reduction in its grants. The National Theater will lose 5% of its funding, the Southbank Center 10%.

These organizations face attrition. Elsewhere in London, the situation is worse. The Donmar Warehouse, Gate and Hampstead theaters all lost all funding, as did the Cheek By Jowl and Kneehigh theater companies. The ‘leveling up’ propaganda has focused on London venues losing funding, but it’s clear there’s a wider onslaught: Harrogate, Portsmouth, Oldham, Winchester have all lost funding too.

So will ENO, unless they take advantage of what is euphemistically called the NPO Transfer Scheme. Under this scheme, businesses are required to relocate from London to maintain NPO status.

The Paines Plow Theater Company is one of 24 organizations that have joined. This was possible in part because they are a traveling company with a portable auditorium, Roundabout, and see themselves as a national company with an address in London.

Paines Plow management continues to stress that the removal of funding and NPO status for theaters and companies casts doubt on ACE’s commitment to new writing in theatre. It will only retain existing funding, which is effectively a reduction.

This is not a transfer scheme but a blackmail scheme as seen most clearly with ENO, which is based in and operates the historic London Coliseum, opened in 1904 and the largest capital theatre. Its £12.6million annual grant will end in March. The company has been offered £17million over three years to pay for its relocation outside of London and “reshape its business model”, while still running the Coliseum as a business venue. This fits with the philistine view of “culture” as buying touring productions rather than building businesses to produce and develop new works.

The auditorium of the London Coliseum, September 28, 2018 [Photo by Colin/Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0]

The ENO attack made the headlines and the ENO initially seemed to accept it. A statement called it “the start of a new chapter”, speaking of “creating a new base out of London, potentially in Manchester”.

However, public and industry anger is immense and growing. A petition started by singer Sir Bryn Terfel calling for the restoration of ENO funding has received over 33,000 signatures so far. Former ENO productions director Sir David Pountney has called on Serota to step down, while current chief executive Stuart Murphy has started meetings with Donelan.

Murphy, a former BBC and Sky Television executive, says the change undermines years of local expertise built up in London. It would take years to rebuild that elsewhere, and Murphy is concerned about the limited opportunity for private fundraising in a much smaller city like Manchester, which has a fraction of London’s nine million people and global significance.

Murphy pointed to the coexistence in London of different types of opera, with the younger and more diverse ENO sitting alongside the more traditional ROH. ACE, however, doubled the cuts from ENO, ROH and other opera companies such as Welsh National Opera (one-third) and Glyndebourne (halved). ACE music director Claire Mera-Nelson blithely said there was “almost no growth in audience demand” for large-scale productions.

Murphy said ENO had done everything it was asked to qualify for public funding, having not “just jumped through hoops, but jumped over them”. This involved accessing the performances and its development of the ENO Breathe program, using singing techniques developed specifically for people recovering from COVID-19 across the country. The government abandoned arts health and economics when the pandemic hit, and singers were hit very hard. Now they receive no recognition for their efforts to overcome this crisis.

The London Sinfonietta Orchestra, which specializes in commissioning and creating new music, has lost 41% of its ACE funding, even though its podcasts, school program and themed concerts have all been praised by ACE.

London Sinfonietta Orchestra chief executive Andrew Burke reports that ACE has made it clear “there is no appeal process”. What they had heard from ACE about the decision was “not about the quality of our work; it’s more about… larger forces and funding moves.

The DCMS ignored the questions with a statement that “everyone should have access to culture, no matter where they live or whatever their background.” But that’s just a cover for brutal philistinism.

Fraudulent claims of ‘upgrading’ are based on the false premise that, even without its historic status as a cultural hub, London needs no specific artistic support. Claims of attention to accessibility and diversity – from a government that has championed and accelerated social inequality – are being used to mask cuts to services meeting these necessary demands.

Every maneuver by ACE and the government aims to pit organizations and regions against each other in a divide-and-conquer strategy. The very survival of cultural institutions and artists is threatened, as the bourgeoisie prepares to dismantle all the social, democratic and cultural rights of the working class.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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