Opera + Classical Music Features

ACE funding: Is ‘levelling up’ in classical music and opera robbing Peter to pay Paul?

OPINION: Former Tory Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries wanted to ‘level up’ arts funding. With Arts Council of England announcing huge cuts to ENO and others, we look at the impact on classical music and opera in London and beyond

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

Earlier this year (two Prime Ministers ago!) Nadine Dorries, the then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport proposed a strategy aimed at ‘levelling up’ the spending on the arts:

“Over the last few decades, an overwhelming amount of money has gone to organisations based in London, while other parts of the country haven’t received their fair share. That’s about to change with a £75m boost for the arts. Every single penny of that money will go to organisations outside of London.”

In the last couple of days, we have seen Arts Council England’s response to that in the release of their budget allocations for the period 2023–26, and voices have already been raised. Back in February, London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, sounded the alarm on behalf of the capital:

“The government’s decision to significantly cut funding for London arts organisations will not only deliver a devastating blow to our city’s creative sector, but also damage the UK’s recovery from this pandemic… London has some of the most deprived communities in the country. Cutting arts funding for these communities is the opposite of levelling up.”

Khan was not wrong, and in terms of London’s classical music and opera funding, the pips have certainly squeaked. LPO, Philharmonia and LSO will each lose around £200K per annum for the 2023–26 period; the Royal Opera House has had its annual allocation reduced from around £25.2M to £22.3M, and the Southbank Centre faces a cut from its current £18.7M to £16.8M. The biggest news, though is that English National Opera has had its current annual grant of £12.6M completely axed, with a strong suggestion (and a £17M sweetener to be spent over three years) that it revise its business plan and move out of London.

While, for those of us who live in the capital, this represents what seems like a cruel and unnecessary clutch of cuts, there are those who will see them in the light of ‘about time’. While all of this is clearly part of the current government’s strategy for ‘levelling up’, and, naturally, for lovers of the arts, any cut in budgets for their support comes as an affront, we might also consider how Arts Council England has responded to Dorries’ fiat, as, for a generally liberal-leaning thinker, ACE’s revised allocations seem perhaps out of tune with what one might expect the current government (with its mounting reputation for a xenophobic stance and a right wing finger in the ‘culture wars’ pie) to countenance; it’s almost as though ACE has responded with a raspberry.

“…in terms of London’s classical music and opera funding, the pips have certainly squeaked”

For sure, the levelling up strategy has been played out very obviously. Where London based organisations have lost out across all the arts (in terms of straight theatre, Donmar and the Hampstead Theatre have each had their grants totally cut), there are increases across the board for regional organisations. In terms of classical music and opera, Birmingham Opera, for example, sees an annual increase from £486K to £586K; the choral group Ex Cathedra (also Birmingham based) will see its grant increase from nearly £59K to nearly £117.5K; Liverpool Lighthouse will now receive a grant of £135K; English Touring Opera gains an extra £400K per annum. The mystery here, though, is the loss of 100% of ACE funding to Britten Sinfonia; they are a Cambridge based organisation whose outreach is very much centred around East Anglia (with obvious strong connections with Aldeburgh); in their recent press release they indicate “we will continue to make our case”.

Beyond this, though, we see a hike in the funding to groups and organisations that promote cultural activities from ethnic minorities: Liverpool’s Africa Oye Festival (the UK’s largest celebration of African culture), for example, receives an extra £51K per annum; the Chineke! Foundation (promoting orchestral and choral music from ethnic minorities) will now receive £700K per annum; the cross-cultural group ShivaNova will be allocated £92K each year; London based Pegasus Opera Company (which champions singers from ethnic minorities) will receive £200K each year; the Jewish Music Institute will get an allocation of £128K.

There’s also a strong focus on music-making by young people: British Youth Opera, Music for Youth, National Youth Choirs, NYO, Orchestras for All and National Youth Brass Band, for example, all have extra funding, and the UK Association for Music Education (Music Mark) will receive £400K per year.

There’s some suggestion of funding being directed to more innovative organisations; Aurora Orchestra (whose USP is to play without scores) sees an increase of funding from £93K to £143K; Manchester Collective (a much lauded Manchester based organisation that promotes new music) gets an allocation of £120K.

Of course, those of us for whom the arts are a huge part of our lives might argue that there should be no cuts, and that there is an imperative to increase spending on the arts in order to promote diversity of culture and geography; such, though, is the lot of the arts – to be an easy target in times of austerity (whether self-inflicted or not). There will be those who see the halving of Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s grant as a tragedy (taking away the organisation’s popular regional outreach, leaving its non-publicly funded core to continue with its exclusive reputation), and those who see it as only right that its premier status should be challenged. Likewise, there are likely to be differing opinions around the swingeing cut to ENO’s funding. There have been questions for some 20 years now around whether London needs two opera houses, particularly when one of them, in the context of the universality of surtitling, insists on continuing a programme of operas translated into English; it’s a model that seems outdated, and the staff changes at the top over recent years have perhaps been testimony to the need for change. Maybe ACE has provided the push before ENO could jump.

• Full details of the proposed funding can be found at ACE’s Investment Programme 2023–26 datasheet.

buy English National Opera MP3s or CDs
Spotify English National Opera on Spotify

More on English National Opera
Prom 10 review – ‘Orrible Opera: a bickering Mozart and Queen Victoria bring opera to kids
ACE funding: Is ‘levelling up’ in classical music and opera robbing Peter to pay Paul?