Charles Wright: English National Opera in London has been reprieved, but can the new arts Council deal work?

Charles Wright: English National Opera in London has been reprieved, but can the new arts Council deal work?

It was just over a year ago that the then culture secretary Nadine Dorries trumpeted her instruction to Arts Council England (ACE) to strip the capital of arts funding as “putting our money where our mouth is” to prove that “levelling up isn’t just a catchy slogan”.

When the directive was put into effect last November, the English National Opera (ENO) was the highest profile and most controversial victim, losing all its £12.4 million a year funding and told to move out of London if it wanted any money at all – to Manchester, it seemed, which apparently came as news to both parties.

By that time Dorries had stood down after just under a year in office. Two culture secretaries later (and on to the eighth since 2016), her decision looks to be unravelling.

Two months after its original offer of some £5 million a year “transition money” to ENO over three years, THe ACE partially backtracked. In the face of a furious backlash, including a petition now with almost 90,000 signatories, it upped that to an award of £11.46 million to keep the stricken ENO alive through 2023/24.

Last week a further retreat was announced in the form of £24 million a year for 2024/25 and 2025/6 now on the table, a “provisional” budget for the ENO to develop a “reimagined artistic and business model with a primary base out of London, whilst continuing to own, manage and put on work at the London Coliseum”, with work “split between their new main base and London”, according to a joint ACE and ENO statement.

As observers have pointed out, the new package up to 2026 is now barely a cut at all. It amounts to £35.46 million over the period, or £11.82 million a year – more than double what was initially on offer and not far off the £12.38 million a year grant the ENO received in the previous funding period between 2018 and 2022. And the company will retain its London flagship venue.

Not exactly the “biggest shake-up in arts funding for a generation” Dorries promised, then, and pretty much a face-saving admission by the ACE that its original decision, taken under ministerial orders, was ill-thought-out at best.

Will the new deal work? It still requires ENO to find a base outside London, while accepting it will retain its venerable 119-year-old 2,359 seat Coliseum flagship. Running two venues won’t be easy and will be costly.

The joint ENO and ACE statement, as well as the “vision” set out by ENO boss Stuart Murphy in the Stage newspaper earlier this year, include possible sites as far afield as Truro, Newcastle, Nottingham, Hull and east Croydon along with “work in different spaces and in partnership with different art forms”. But they are short on detail.

In the absence of firmer plans it’s hard to disagree with the verdict of commentator Norman Lebrecht, writing on his Slipped Disc classical music news website, that the deal could simply mean a “longer stay on death row” for the ENO, and that “three years from now it will still be in crisis”. It’s nevertheless a straw the Arts Council has clutched at, with the ENO now working up a formal funding application.

And post-Dorries, things may be shifting. Junior culture minister Julia Lopez gave only a half-hearted defence of the Arts Council at a House of Commons adjournment debate earlier this month, professing herself “always anxious to ensure that levelling up does not necessarily mean removing a resource from London, a city of eight million people consisting of a huge range of communities with different needs and different levels of wealth”.

The ENO has not been above criticism in recent years, but ACE’s attempt to direct its future, akin to the government’s unhelpful micro-managerial approach to Transport for London, has turned a cross-party spotlight on the supposedly “arms-length” funding organisation too. It has “serious questions to answer about both its competence and its processes,” Tory MP Sir Bob Neill said in that same Commons debate, while Labour MP Bambos Charalambous described its approach as “chaotic”.

Belatedly, the ACE is now commissioning independent research into opera, including audience profiling, to “allow us to build strong foundations for our work in supporting all parts of this hugely important sector going forward”.

That work must now inform further, better-thought-out, decisions on ENO funding. It’s certainly an opportunity to move away from the crude anti-London politicking which seemed to inform the earlier decision – ironically targeted at one of the more accessible and inclusive companies in the sector – and set out a properly-designed future where opera audiences across the country can benefit. It’s not an opportunity the Arts Council should miss.

Follow Charles Wright on Twitter.

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