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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The floundering state of the arts


By Norman Lebrecht / September 29, 2000

HERE is a brief summary of the summer's casualties. Two of America's leading dance companies, the Martha Graham and the Cleveland Ballet, went belly-up as audiences slackened and funding ran dry. There is hope that the Cleveland troupe may survive by relocating to San José, in Silicon Valley. The authorities in the Netherlands have announced the abolition of three orchestras, two symphonic and one chamber. In Berlin, Daniel Barenboim has joined the exodus of top-flight conductors - Abbado, Thielemann, Kreizberg - as subsidy lakes freeze over and cuts appear inevitable.

Canada's orchestras are in chaos. Toronto is a graveyard for conductors and chief execs, Winnipeg is running one-third over budget and the rest, Montreal apart, are locked into some form of dispute or depression. A cull is anticipated. Australia's only chamber music festival, at Townsville, is facing extinction, as are two international contests, the London string quartet competition and the Carl Flesch. Last week, Classic CD - the first magazine to cover-mount a free disc - ceased publication, preceded by the US Schwann catalogue, bible of record collectors.

The temptation is to greet these tidings with a wailing and gnashing of teeth at the loss or decline of valued institutions. "Somebody ought to do something to save these poor dancers and musicians," we cry. But the longer I observe the fluctuating fortunes of the lively arts, the less I am convinced that anything needs to be done. Art, like life, is never static, and when the pace picks up somebody is bound to get left behind. My heart goes out to stranded artists, as it does to shipbuilders and steelworkers whose jobs have vanished. But propping up arts companies that have lost their popularity and purpose is futile.

Better, surely, to rally resources around the fittest ensembles, whose success may breed regeneration. It was no easy decision for the Dutch arts council to kill off three orchestras, but better to lose a band in Haarlem than to reduce the resplendent Concertgebouw to starvation rations.

The British way is, of course, different. We muddle along with fudges and sticking-plaster, penalising excellence in order to preserve mediocrity - and pouring millions down the plughole as a way of maintaining bureaucratic propriety. The absence of courage and strategy in British arts is nothing short of scandalous.

Take Liverpool. Its philharmonic orchestra was originally put on full-time wages as a wartime exigency. No one since has ever bothered to question the status quo, as the city grew poorer. The RLPO recently ran up debts of £3,250,000 and flirted with insolvency. In stepped the Arts Council of England. A blameless chief executive, Antony Lewis-Crosby, was brusquely dismissed and a team of accountants went crawling over the books before the ACE wiped off the debt with a £5.4 million Lottery grant.

The accountants were then charged with finding a new manager. This they are trying to do by ringing round the business and seeking free advice (the standard rate is £250 an hour plus VAT). One orchestral boss whom they called suggested they talk to Ed Smith, who in a 20-year partnership with Simon Rattle restored Birmingham's orchestra. "Rattle," mused the accountant. "I've heard of him. Should we be talking to him about the job?"

The question that should have been asked was: does Liverpool need a full-time orchestra when Manchester, 20-odd miles up the road, has three that are under-employed? A strategic solution for the region - involving the Hallé, the BBC Philharmonic, the Manchester Camerata and the best Liverpool players - was ripe for the taking. But no one dares to advocate rationalisation, or euthanasia. They would rather pay millions to bog-ignorant bean-counters and millions more in Lottery cash to avoid the responsibility for doing what is best for the city, the country and the culture.

And so we muddle along, with some of the world's finest theatres, orchestras, opera and ballet companies being dragged down by lame ducks, lost causes and lily-livered bureaucrats. Like the Siamese twins from Gozo, every British arts organisation is now physically bound to another that is sucking life from its vital organs, while the Arts Council fiddles and the accountants cash in.

23 September 2000: [UK News] Siamese twin 'may be sacrificed'
22 September 2000: High-voltage interpretation [RLPO at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999