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Supporting the arts from all sides

If the persistent talk of arts cuts has done anything, it has prompted a running discussion on what the arts and culture actually mean to this country.  It is hardly surprising that among professional politicians, the debate is generally split along party lines but even there, some have crossed the floor to argue that it is not as simple as slashing the budget for the arts and expecting the wider public to quietly acquiesce. The Culture Secretary and his shadow recently gave similar speeches expounding the value of the arts and education but each featured stereotyping, both laced their words with powerful economic threat.

The problem is that whenever we discuss the finances of the arts budget and the consequent cuts, we are offered one dimensional either-or scenarios; "I would rather money was spent on saving lives" or, from the arts side, "we spend billions on Trident", and so the public is easily manipulated. Governments, of any colour, are given to extreme consciousness when it comes to our physical and social health, telling us how to look after ourselves, demanding we stop doing things like smoking, trying to divert young women from unwanted pregnancy, ordering us to stop using our phones when driving or to get us to reduce our alcohol intake. There are endless ways by which lobby groups will apparently concern themselves deeply with our well-being and if they have to, they will propose we be fined or shamed into complying. 

What there does not seem to be a great deal of time for is our emotional, intellectual and cultural health, even though the entire point of our existence as working, harassed and -apparently - wantonly unhealthy members of society is to enjoy life. I don't know about you but culture in its many forms is sort of what life is all about isn't it? Reading, watching TV and cinema, listening to music? What is it we do when not at the office? Where do we get our emotional experiences on a day to day basis? Culture is what sustains, defines and even forms our life experiences. It isn't a fluffy adjunct. Times have certainly changed though, a fact brought home to me at the theatre last night when a group of Chelsea Pensioners, resplendent in their scarlets, came to the last night of Il barbiere di Siviglia. One of them told me, over a tot of whisky, that the last time he had seen this particular opera was in Naples. When I asked him when that was he said, "Oh, during the War". I'll let you think about that one.

At Opera Holland Park we work in an industry that receives a large portion of the ACE budget (although we ourselves do not) and I wouldn't necessarily agree that is fair, but the problem with this particular hot-potato is that opera is so ridiculously caricatured in the UK that the debate is almost impossible to have without some idiot saying "it is for the rich, let them pay for it!".  I have written before that it is the rich who do often pay for it; ask all those development managers working for opera companies around the UK who they squeeze until the pips squeak. It was wealthy people who gave us the money to commission Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, an opera that thousands of kids and their families have enjoyed for a couple of quid a go. Neither do the rich, in my experience at least, seek to exclude anybody from the theatre or opera house, art gallery or museum and I need not remind you that most people visiting such institutions are not wealthy, either.

Whilst culture is something that large numbers of people in the UK still value, there remains a great swathe of the nation who are not terribly well exposed to it and so, as a consequence of educational failures, the arts suffer from being perceived as something enjoyed only by a certain Class of Person for whom the anti-culturalists reserve especially vituperative hostility. Politicians are then kidded into thinking they are only upsetting a minority. From the other side, those championing the socially and economically challenged within society look at the same issue with a different slant, often standing accused - certainly by me - of robbing young people of the opportunity to explore, telling them, "that is not for you". I am as allergic to them as I am to the flathead pseudo-economists.

In our borough the council carry out regular surveys of a group of people known as the Residents Panel. There are several hundreds of these people, carefully selected to reflect the social and economic profile of the borough and the participants are asked to comment on various aspects of council services, to offer opinions on major topics and issues. They recently took part in a survey on culture and their answers were fascinating. 

Asked to agree or otherwise with the statement "Arts and culture in London are an important part of my life", 86% said they Strongly Agreed or Agreed. Only 1% said they actively disagreed. They continued in that vein for several similar related statements until the final section stated, "I believe that arts and culture should be encouraged and supported by the council" - 54% Strongly Agreed, 35% Agreed and only 3% Strongly Disagreed or Disagreed. That is 89% of people who believe their council should support culture but, whilst Council's up and down the country try to do so, many also find culture to be the first and easiest thing to relinquish, thus leaving their communities impoverished in more ways than one.

Investec, our title sponsor, are a company who contribute money to support the festival, to try to progress the work and to contribute to the costs and help pay for the thousands of free and cheap tickets we distribute every season. Their sponsorship has actually become a participatory exercise in demonstrating what the arts can mean to people; sixteen of their staff were in our production of I gioielli della Madonna and over  sixty of them took part in the choir welcoming the Olympic Torch as it visited our theatre in 2012. I recently gave two  speeches to their guests and staff which turned into something of a eulogy to the vitality and importance of the arts and to the absolutely critical need for individuals and companies to continue to support culture in the UK through sponsorships and donations. In both rooms, the audience were wealthy, successful people, all of whom could afford to pay for whatever they fancied doing or seeing in a theatre and indeed do so. But each and every one of them nodded vigorously in agreement, applauding the principal of publicly supported arts and the access to it we should afford the whole of society. The patrons who we harangue for support put their money where their mouth is because they know, from their own experience, that life is just so much better when infused with wondrous music, bewitching words or gorgeous pictures. And you won't be surprised to hear me say that I know summertime London is a better place for having OHP in it.

We unquestionably need individuals and the corporate world to step up to the plate but they are more likely to do so knowing there is support from the nation in one form or another because they don't want to be the core funders of the arts; they want their money to improve it.


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