Tom Sutcliffe considers senior appointments
The appointment in 2017 of Sir Nicholas Serota to be chairman of Arts Council England, when he retired from running the Tate Gallery for nearly 30 years, was almost as surprising as the 1981 appointment of William Rees-Mogg by Margaret Thatcher to (in effect) the same role – though few of us back then were aware that they had been friends at Oxford immediately after the second world war. Serota is a visual arts expert. Rees-Mogg was a distinguished journalist. But I do not think there was a hint of criticism of Serota’s appointment, or the slightest suggestion that somebody concerned with public support for the live performing arts should know quite a bit about them – perhaps even have run a theatre.
But this is a country where the current CEO of English National Opera was previously a Sky television person with no previous experience at all of live performance except to camera. And the two men chosen to run the Royal Opera House as an institution since Jeremy Isaacs was appointed back in the 1990s were in the case of Tony Hall a distinguished news journalist, and in the case of Alex Beard co-administrator of the Tate. Dennis Marks was appointed to run ENO in 1993 with no real experience of putting on opera live, though he was (as I well knew) very keen indeed on opera. More recent directors of opera at the Garden, Kasper Holten and Oliver Mears, did have some opera experience.
Moreover, Arts Council England looks after an awful lot more than the live performing arts. It concerns itself now with “thriving artforms and disciplines across England: from dance to literature, and from museums to libraries” and also has “strategic priorities as an organisation, including children and young people and diversity”. Nor is it that easy to find just which organisations are helped by Arts Council England and in what way. ACE lists its “national portfolio” (and records what artform an organisation is concerned with) in alphabetical order based on the organisation’s name. There is no simple list of which institutions supplying us with the four performing arts are actually being subsidised by ACE – nor is the gross money supplied to each organisation in the ACE portfolio accompanied by any detailed information of what they actually do, which would be telling in print.
The ACE still maintains that everything in the arts garden is glorious (just like the report 40 years back under Rees-Mogg called The Glory of the Garden). In fact, in my view and the view of many known to me working in the arts, the true picture is very different.
Subsidy has been devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations each with their own Arts Councils together serving 10.4 million people. But Arts Council England supplying 54 millions of us is by far the largest body dealing in subsidy – or (as it prefers to call it) investment. In many ways ACE is comparable to the Arts Council of Great Britain from which it stems. But I think ACE is much more careful and scrooge-like than ACGB was. The idea that everything being done is for everybody is inherently ridiculous and very far from the case. But one reads “Almost twice as many people visit the theatre every year in London alone as buy tickets to watch Premier League football.” Written with a straight face, I suppose. But the claim is irrelevant and misleading because as is obvious to anybody who goes to the theatre in or around London, most of the long-running musicals parked in the West End which have been turning Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Cameron Mackintosh into billionaires are there for tourists. Our National Theatre has many visitors who are not ongoing London theatre-goers. A tragedy of the UK theatre industry (on top of the disappearance over the last 50 years of so many provincial companies with permanent ensembles of contracted actors working together) is the absence from even our largest towns of local professional theatre of any quantity at all.
It is a fact that there are no companies in the British Isles with long-term or permanent ensembles any more, and hence no repertory theatres with a roster of different productions programmed to alternate during a week as they can be to an extent by the National or the Royal Shakespeare Company.
It is as if nobody at ACE has ever bothered to check how subsidy is managed in other parts of Europe and what the benefits can be for the great public. Nobody at ACE seems to realise what an enormous reduction of performances was inevitable at the London Coliseum by English National Opera when they removed £5 millions from the in operatic terms modest ENO subsidy until 3 or 4 years ago of £17 millions. Germany spends €3 billions annually on opera, which provides almost 70 opera companies in the country that is the operatic workshop of the world.