SSUE 1818 Wednesday 17 May 2000
Friends in need?
BOC Covent Garden Festival – official site
Norman Lebrecht on the callous misnomer “arts community”
THERE are one or two lessons about money that I have picked up during 20 years of unremitting arts crisis. The first is never to believe a public-funded company that says it is going broke. When the cash runs out, there is seldom enough time to sound the alarm. A funded institution that cries “bust!” is doing no more than playing the joker in a long-running game of brinkmanship.
Another hard-learned tip is not to accept indigence as an excuse for inaction. If the vision is right, and the leadership visible, the money will always follow. Examples of this axiom abounded last week on opposite sides of the Thames.
On one bank, the Tate Modern burst into existence with the fanfares of a Hollywood premiere. It cost £134.5 million, of which the Government gave £12 million, the National Lottery £56.2 million and private donors the rest, all without a hint of hesitancy. The need for an extra Tate to hang unseen treasures and celebrate the postmodern triumph of British art had been lucidly and irrefutably articulated by its director, Sir Nicholas Serota.
On the day the Tate opened, the Millennium Dome went grovelling for yet another Government “loan”. The need for a Dome had never been felt by anyone beyond a handful of Disney-dazzled politicians. By the time it shuts, the Dome will have spent a billion pounds and Ford, one of its key sponsors, will have stopped making motor-cars in the region. The only reason the Dome will get its cash is to spare ministerial blushes.
Gruesome as the Tate Modern must look from the Dome, it struck a note of acute anguish among the performing arts. Upriver, the South Bank Centre was dithering over its redevelopment, a process that has lasted 15 years without a brick being moved. With the Tate a hot ticket, there is no earthly need for a Hayward Gallery, yet the South Bank Board are still weighing the options, unaware that the world has moved on.
Across the bridge, the Royal Opera House, rebuilt amid truculence and derision, announced a routine-looking new season. Both the South Bank and the ROH lack the Tate’s knack of stating their purpose with a clarity that brooks no contradiction.
All around, meanwhile, the 10th Covent Garden Festival was kicking off and upwards with an all-day celebration of Haydn’s Creation at the gloriously restored Somerset House, a G & S Trial by Jury at the Royal Courts of Justice, recitals at the refurbished National Portrait Gallery and a saucy new chamber opera, The Music Programme, by Roxanna Panufnik, who believes that her Catholic faith does not preclude fun.
The only cloud has been a warning that this 10th festival may well be the last. Founded by the Chez Gérard restaurateur, Laurence Isaacson, the festival runs on a G-string. Two-thirds of its £782,000 budget is spent on shows, and much of the rest on promotion.
Salaries and overheads are, unlike their equivalents at the South Bank and ROH, negligible. The festival gets by with the help of a £500,000 subsidy from BOC, Guardian Insurance and American Express. BOC, however, has been taken over by a French group and the other two are at the end of their committed term.
Unless new sources are found, the party’s over. Isaacson, a New Labourite and long-time friend of Chris Smith’s, is not crying “bust!” or trying to mug the public purse. He needs half a million and hopes to raise it locally. His agenda is strikingly populist, with inner-city schoolkids involved in many shows.
Halfway through opening week, the festival’s future hangs in the balance. Major corporations have grown uninterested in grassroots events and local traders cannot afford six-figure sums. In a crunch like this, the ROH and English National Opera might have spotted a great opportunity. Taken over by a national company, the festival could become more ambitious and the theatre more community-conscious.
Pipe dreams, I fear. The first rule of arts survival is to steer clear of hardship cases. The ROH and ENO might lend each other a tenor at a pinch but, when either hits a bad patch, the other cannot be seen for dust.
The term “arts community” is a callous misnomer. The performing arts, in Britain and most other places, are shackled by a stifling self-interest that prevents collaboration, communication and common decency. The phrase “I’m all right, Jack” amounts to a mission statement for many theatres, ballet groups and orchestras. Their refusal to look beyond their lintel and dream an improbable dream is one reason why the performing arts are perpetually in trouble, while the Tate is riding ever higher.