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Arts Council England’s grant disbursal changes draw mixed reception

The recent announcement that the English National Opera (ENO) was to lose its entire Arts Council England (ACE) grant and that the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) would lose a third of its support was not entirely surprising. The Johnson government’s flagship ‘levelling up’ policy dictated the aim of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to spread its largesse more evenly across Britain.

That said, the severity of the cuts for these two major musical institutions begs questions about the motivation for the changes, particularly as the new Sunak government quietly reverses some of the former Culture Secretary’s more vindictive policies. Both the ENO and EFDSS had their base in London, but their work spreads way beyond. One wonders whether moving ENO to Manchester will actually draw the same numbers of people that it did in London, or whether it will even find a sustainable future there.

At least the EFDSS retains that majority of its funding, but what does spreading the residual £140,000 across numerous little organisations do to improve the profile of English folk music and dance that wasn’t already being done by the society? £100,000 of that is allocated to English Folk Expo, which aims to provide career support to professional musicians.

ACE’s argument was explained thus, ‘As a 2018-22 National Portfolio Organisation, English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) promotes and supports English folk music and dance reaching a range of audiences that include young people and their families, as well as supporting artists at all stages of their careers.

‘We recognise the contribution EFDSS makes to creating a vibrant Music ecology in England and are pleased that the organisation will be part of our 2023-26 portfolio.

‘While EFDSS’s application outlined a broad programme that would make a good contribution to Let’s Create, we decided to make a reduced offer that has given us the opportunity to invest in a broader, more balanced range of organisations delivering exciting arts, culture, and creative opportunities for more people, in more place across London. We look forward to continuing to support the National Youth Music Folk ensemble and other elements of EFDSS’s work over the coming years.’

EFDSS’s reaction was one of confusion. ‘We are seeking answers from Arts Council England about their decision to cut support for folk arts. By our reckoning, Arts Council England funding dedicated to folk music and dance was already tiny at £1 out of every £780; next year it will be £1 in £1116.’

After a measured reaction from the ENO on the day of the announcement that they’d lost every penny of their ACE grant, comments from ACE Chief Executive Darren Henley poured fuel on the fire. Henley suggested that if opera was to have any future it should be performed in car parks and pubs, rather than grand auditoriums.

ENO’s Chief Executive Stuart Murphy fired a salvo in response, accusing ACE of using baffling narratives. He highlighted ACE Director of Music Claire Mera-Nelson’s suggestion that the ENO had seen no growth in traditional grand opera as wilfully ignoring the ENO’s expansion into drive-in opera with beatboxers and the hugely successful TikTok opera.

By cutting the £12.5 million annual funding, Murphy said, the council was forcing the organisation to revert to the elitist, £300 a ticket company that ENO had been so actively trying to avoid.

Despite the Arts Council’s incentive to put extra funding into the company if it moves outside London, a key policy of the former Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries MP, protests from the performers union Equity were held in London and Manchester against the cuts. On 4 November, ACE’s London offices were besieged by ENO chorus members and staff singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ with the support of Equity, the Independent Society of Musicians, Musicians’ Union and Bectu. Meanwhile, members of the Oldham Coliseum carried out a similar event at the council’s Manchester offices in solidarity with the ENO.

MU General Secretary, Naomi Pohl called the cuts ‘cultural vandalism’.

‘The Arts Council has made a howling mistake and the sooner it corrects it, the better,’ said Murphy. The ENO’s head of stage management, Rosie Davis, told Classic FM that they had been braced for some cuts, ‘But we never expected to receive the news that we received that morning. It devastated the workforce.’ Singers at that evening’s performance of Tosca wore ‘choose opera’ tee-shirts in defiance.