London arts industry counts cost of ‘levelling up’ funding cuts

London arts industry counts cost of ‘levelling up’ funding cuts

Last week saw the opening of London’s newest purpose-built concert hall, at Embassy Gardens in Nine Elms, backed with £800,000 of “levelling up” cash from the government along with £86,564 a year Arts Council funding for the World Heart Beat music academy which runs it.

The venture was heralded by minister for London Paul Scully, speaking at the Centre for London conference last week, as the first levelling up project in the country to open – evidence, he said, that the flagship policy was not ignoring the capital.

“When London does well the rest of the UK does well too,” he said. “Pulling jobs, investment and local growth away from Londoners could not be further from the truth of what we are trying to aim for.”

It was a claim that will have rung hollow three days later north of the river, at one of the city’s oldest and grandest venues, the London Coliseum, home of the English National Opera (ENO), as the company saw its entire grant axed from the Arts Council England’s 2023-2026 funding programme, unveiled on Friday.

The £12.6 million a year cut to the ENO, with an offer of a smaller one-off grant to help it relocate, possibly to Manchester, came as a surprise to the venerable organisation, almost a hundred years old. “It wasn’t what we were expecting,” said one back office manager. “The chorus and orchestra are devastated. There will inevitably be redundancies.”

That was confirmed later in the day by ENO chief executive Stuart Murphy. “This is a brutal cut,” he said. “We are going to have to massively downsize the company. We have a big home base that will now have to be pulled apart. That’s almost a hundred years of tradition and culture and loyalty, just gone.”

Conductor Leo Hussain, fresh from the ENO’s Tosca, said on classical music website Slipped Disc that he was alternating between “desperate sadness and f***ing fury thinking of dedicated, generous, brilliant artists who will lose their livelihood because of wilful cultural vandalism by the government”.

There were other high profile casualties as the Arts Council, contrary to Scully’s assertions, carried out a government instruction to take almost £50 million funding away from London, with Hampstead Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse and the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill losing all their grant.

Big beneficiaries also saw significant reductions: almost £2 million from the South Bank, £1 million from the National Theatre, £500,000 from the Serpentine Gallery and £3 million from the largest single recipient, the Royal Opera House – a 19% real terms cut according to the company.

Overall, London saw 282 organisations selected to receive £152 million a year between them up to 2026, a third of the total distributed to England and Wales, though down from 37.5% of the total in 2018 and 46% in 2012, including grants to assist 24 to move out of the capital.

The Theatre Royal Stratford East, the Lyric, Hammersmith and Unicorn children’s theatre retain grants of just over £1 million a year, with £1.8 million for the Young Vic and £2.4 million for the English Stage Company at the Royal Court.

Other familiar names on the list include Talawa Black British Theatre in Croydon, Graeae Theatre, Tara South Asian Theatre, the Hackney Empire, Islington’s Almeida, the Havering Theatre trust at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, getting an almost 40% hike, and the Kiln Theatre in Kilburn.

Sixty-one organisations across the city received funding for the first time, in line with the government’s encouragement to spread the capital’s smaller funding pot away from central London towards groups “more representative” in respect of diversity and location. Nevertheless, the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre and the Southbank Centre between them still account for a third of London funding.

But it was the axing of the ENO which has reopened the argument around “levelling up” and the economic as well as the cultural significance of the arts, with City Hall estimating a £58 billion contribution to the national economy from London’s cultural sector pre-pandemic, supporting one in six jobs in the capital.

“London’s cultural organisations contribute billions and power our capital’s economic comeback as well as the wider UK economy every year which is why they need continued investment,” said Sadiq Khan.

The arts and culture sector is “what makes the whole of London so successful and vibrant,” added Ros Morgan, from the Heart of London Business Alliance, describing the cuts as “wilful damage to the arts sector and to London as a whole”.

The ENO’s Murphy, who said only last month when announcing his departure as CEO next September that he would be leaving the company “at a time when its future has never looked more secure and exciting”, warned of significant job losses among the company’s 140 musicians and singers and 150 technical staff.

The ENO had been “one of the few” opera companies successfully widening its audience, with free tickets for under-21s, people of colour making up 13% of attendees, all performances in English and a “wear jeans and t-shirts if you want” approach, he said.

Opera packed a “massive economic punch” in the capital, he added. And the company also played an important role as a “gateway” opera house for the industry, training young singers. “That, in one decision, has been destroyed,” he said.

As it explores the possibilities of relocation the company has pledged to continue to manage its prominent London home just off Trafalgar Square as an opera and dance venue “whilst maximising it as a commercial asset”.

But the funding decision inevitably raises questions, not only about the viability of a move away from London, but also about the future of the Coliseum, the largest theatre in the West End, with 2,359 seats, dating from 1904, a Grade II* listed building and, apparently, one of the first two places in the UK to sell Coca-Cola.

With Arts Council England chair Sir Nicholas Serota himself praising the ENO’s recent performance, describing it as “probably better led now than they ever have been”, there are questions too about the way the axe has been wielded, defunding a small number of organisations altogether, none of them failing, in Serota’s words, rather than “spreading the misery”.

As the Financial Times says in its review of the ENO’s latest production, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard, “does such a prestigious history of achievement over nearly a century really count for nothing?”

Photo from London Coliseum website.

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1 Comment

  1. Kyle Harrison says:

    Considering the amount of private wealth in London could some of these prestigious central London venues not do more to attract funding from private sources on a charitable basis?

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