When arts and social inclusion don't mix

TODAY, the board of Scottish Opera meets to review its financial crisis. The delayed annual report is flooded with red ink. It awaits the go-ahead from the Scottish Executive on a joint plan that could see more than 100 redundancies among its chorus and staff.

A helpless situation? Pretty much so. But there is one action the board can collectively take today to bring a necessary catharsis and to help begin a proper defence of the company and its artistic standards: it should tell Frank McAveety, the joke of a culture minister, where to stuff it, and resign, en bloc.

Five years on from the devolution settlement and all those lofty words about the arts being put at the centre of Scottish life, the company’s programme has been cut to just one new production. It is facing hefty redundancies. Confidence is low. Morale among the 240 staff is at rock bottom.

Given all the rhetoric expended by the arts and political establishment in Scotland, what is unfolding here is shocking, and the position in which the directors have been put is wholly invidious. They are effectively being asked by the Executive to collaborate in an attack on the artistic base which they as directors are duty bound to defend.

This is a national disgrace. Leading players in the performing arts in Scotland had come to look forward to the devolution settlement with confidence that their talents would be recognised, their commitment to standards acknowledged and their needs addressed. They were encouraged in this belief by an Executive long on strategies and fancy brochures about its commitment to the arts.

Sample this, for example, from the latest Cultural Policy Statement last month by the culture minister: "We will invest in the innate creativity of our young people and energise a new generation by creating an environment that encourages them to realise their cultural potential."

Or this: "Government’s role is to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place to deliver culture for the people of Scotland, to invest in the next generation, and to respond to the needs of the people of Scotland."

Pious guff, all of it. The looming redundancies at Scottish Opera mark a rout, not just for the company, but for the whole arts establishment in Scotland. It has swallowed this stuff wholesale and been far too collaborationist with an Executive that has neither the interest nor the will to support the arts for art’s sake.

What was needed from the Executive was bold support. Instead it has fiddled and obfuscated and flannelled and delayed.

In this dreadful prospect for the national opera company, I do not exempt the management from a measure of blame. Its policy of wilful brinkmanship was based on a belief - wholly misplaced as it turned out - that the Executive would come forward with the necessary money. This has backfired spectacularly. In the words of Lorne Boswell, Scottish secretary of Equity, in a biting letter to the culture minister, "Any attempts by the company’s many supporters to argue for greater funding are destroyed by the belief that, no matter how many times the company’s finances are re-structured, it will continue to spend more than it has ... They have driven the company to the point of no return and are now proposing to dismantle the company."

The 2003 accounts show rising production and support costs while box-office income is down, theatre-letting income is down and income from commercial activity is down. There is a cumulative deficit of 1.9 million. As at end March this year, the company had drawn down 4.5 million of its 2004/05 grant.

Now it has been told that if it can show how it will manage on a reduced budget of 5.8 million for each of the next two years, the Executive will finance the one-off re-structuring. As if all this wasn’t enough, the company proposes to spend up to 34 per cent of its income on social inclusion and "outreach" projects.

Many factors have contributed to this crisis. But there is one for which the Executive is largely responsible, and which works to make recovery at Scottish Opera almost impossible. This is the constant mantra about social inclusion.

This in turn flows from a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the performing arts and indeed the appeal of artistic activity generally. It is to argue that public funding for the arts can only be validated by utilitarian measures of perceived social worth. But opera is not - and should never be - about audience manipulation and means-testing. It is about artistic excellence.

The Executive’s Kremlinesque strategy documents on the arts are infused with the idea that "culture" is what our all-wise, all-seeing government alone funds and controls. It is blind to the annual household spend in the UK each year on recreation and culture of 82 billion. Within this broad category, we spend more than 14 billion on cultural activities. This is on top of books (3.1 billion) and recorded music.

Oblivious to this, the so-called Cultural Policy Statement has crazily set up a commission to explore, I quote, "the notion of cultural rights for the Scottish citizen" and "to define how these might be translated into a scheme of entitlements". It is quite innocent of the notion of personal choice. The result is control-freakery that borders on the lunatic.

Opera is - and historically always has been - hugely expensive. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts - and the parts do not come cheap. It involves orchestra, powerful and gifted singers, a chorus, ambitious stagecraft, setting and lighting, and masses of rehearsal and preparation time. Each strand makes the most exacting demands on artistic professionalism and excellence. But what attracts us is the richness and extravagance of sound and effect in the end result. We are drawn to this great effect and its ability to move us profoundly. Cut-price, tea-chest opera just doesn’t cut it. And when you chop the production budget to fund social inclusion, you kill the very point of opera staging.

Ritual obeisance to notions of inclusion and universal access overlooks the evidence of Thorstein Veblen and others that the appeal of opera as both an artistic and social event is not in spite of the fact that it is expensive, but precisely because it is. That is why Raymond Gubbay’s cheap and cheerful Savoy Opera has closed after barely a month, while the 2004 season at Glyndebourne (typical ticket price 100 and no public subsidy) kicks off this week with barely a spare ticket in sight.

Nothing more excites the atavistic class envy of the North Lanarkshire Labour set than a Glyndebourne picnic. But when thousands of us go to France for a rugby match or Barcelona for a football fixture and spend much more, we do not lose ourselves in a rant about rich folks’ privileges. It is simply about different choices as to how we spend our money.

So why subsidise Scottish Opera? Precisely because it is a minority taste. And because it is expensive. And because it is art for art’s sake. It honours artistic integrity. Its goal is excellence. It is a national platform for the best of our classical musicians, singers, stage designers and directors. It trains and develops them to world standard.

We should be proud of it. We should support it. And we should fight for it. That is why the directors should make a stand today: for this company, and for all arts companies.

Back to the top of the page