So, the economy is not in as bad shape as we thought it was going to be, post-Brexit. It grew by a heart-warming 0.6% in the quarter up to the Referendum, 0.2% up on the previous quarter, according to the Office of National Statistics, so the new Chancellor can tell us that we are in better shape than the doom-sayers (such as the former Foreign Secretary) have whined, and we enter the European withdrawal negotiations “from a position of economic strength”.
By extension, the better place the arts found itself in after last year’s comprehensive review and the old Chancellor’s damascene moment should stay in tact, then. Can a government unknow something it has learnt - albeit belatedly – about the value of the arts and the creative industries to the economy and the disproportionate damage a subsidy cut could cause to its contribution?
Of course it can. The new Prime Minister has little if any interest in the arts; the previous Chancellor had an old mate in the DCMS who could enlighten him and did in the end, but they’ve both been fired and Philip Hammond has no more recorded concern for the arts than the new arts minister, which is none. The new culture secretary is an accountant from May’s old nest, the Home Office. And that figure that brought a blush of excitement to Hammond’s cheek on Wednesday is a pre-Brexit assessment: since then two national banks have suggested things are looking so bad they might have to charge depositers, another is thinking of moving to Paris and another has announced plans to lay off 3,000 employees and shut 200 high street branches. Even senior civil servants in DCMS are shaking their heads and saying that philanthropy, the great pillar of cultural sustainability envisioned by Jeremy Hunt, is about to disappear with Europe.
Hammond’s autumn statement, despite what he says and how he terms it, is expected to be the start of another term of austerity, not as strident as in 2010 but cutting as deep. Arts leaders in the big dollar earning sections like theatre and opera believe we will back to “the arts not being a special case” and taking a thrashing once again. Many, maybe most, will survive because of the extraordinary inventiveness and financial adroitness they have honed over the last five years, making partnerships overseas and spreading their creativity to earn euros, dollars and yuan. But there will be tragedies, and for the first look no further than English National Opera.
The running of ENO is, as ever, being manipulated by the Arts Council which cut £5m from its annual subsidy and expelled it from the National Porfolio. Its management is headed by another accountant who has no arts background and lost her music director in a row over programming, appointed a showman as artistic director and alienated the company’s creative backbone, its chorus, but cutting pay and numbers. It will effectively be a part-time company from next year, releasing its Coliseum home for commercial hires for the summer months.
By contrast ENO’s erstwhile artistic director John Berry, who was a specialist at making foreign partnerships and co-productions, has got a new job at of all institutions the Bolshoi Theatre. This week he became its creative adviser, the personal appointment of general director Vladimir Urin who took over the Bolshoi – home of the famous ballet company, now performing in Covent Garden, and the less well-travelled but equally accomplished opera company – in 2013 in the wake of the acid-throwing scandal, and his brief is believed to be to turn the opera into as big a global presence as, say, the Royal Opera House, a pointer perhaps to what Berry’s role will be. “I’ve known Vladimir for many years, he’s somebody I trust” he told me this week. Urin has no budget restriction, no quango-oversight of his business plan, and his opening nights are attended by all of Russia’s panjandrums from Putin down, as are most European national opera house first nights. The May opening of Don Giovanni at Berlin’s Komische Oper was attended by Angela Merkel who not only sat through the whole performance but stayed for two hours at the party afterwards to which the audience was invited. Mrs Merkel has an election coming up next year, as might Mrs May.
British political indifference to performance as well as the lack of understanding of how the economic power of the arts works as we go into another economic winter could finally see Berry’s old charge vanish in a clatter of collapsing financial structures in which the art is having a rapidly diminishing influence. Might we see the Bolshoi Opera here on a rare foreign tour, in a summer season at the Coliseum? Would the PM come for the opening night?