Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
The gift could hardly have come at a better time. Halfway into a downturn season, with rows gaping empty on premiere nights and a $4.3 million shortfall on revenue targets, a cheque from board member Merdeces Bass, wife of a Texas oilman, has enabled the Metropolitan Opera in New York to enter the New Year with a spring in its step and a song in its heart.
At $25 million, the donation is being trumpeted as the biggest in Met history, which politely overlooks the $30 million pledged by crashed dotcom financier Alberto Vilar who failed to make good two-thirds of his note and had his name hacked off the wall of the Met Grand Tier (and Covent Garden's Floral Hall) as a result. Still, more than just covering the Vilar black hole, the boost from Mrs Bass signals a resumption of philanthropy as normal on the US scale.
'It's really the duty of a board member to support the institution in times of need,' said Mrs Bass, a glamorous socialite who has sat on the Met's governing body for 12 years and is noted even among super-plutocrats for the extravagance of her parties. 'The Met's angel has shown her face,' beamed general manager Joseph Volpe, who will end his career this summer on a higher note than appeared likely.
Duty is what it's all about. Mercedes Bass exemplifies the keen sense of personal responsibility felt by board members of arts bodies in a land where state funding is minimal and extreme wealth comes with a degree of social obligation to create and maintain public amenities. A deficit at the Met would reflect badly on the board. Someone had to step up to the collection plate. One cheque was all it took.
It couldn't happen in London, and for reasons that have nothing to do with relative wealth. There are plenty of people in Britain with millions to spare, but those who feel the urge to leave a mark on the finer things in life tend to invest in bricks and mortar, endowing everlasting Sainsbury Wings and Clore Theatres rather than putting the money at the disposal of performing ensembles to spend as they please.
We have the wealth in this country and we have, thanks to the present government, tax benefits for certain types of gift. But we also have a structure of governance in the performing arts that is decades out of date, a maze in which a well-meaning benefactor cannot hope to see where the money is going, going, gone.
It is no accident that English National Opera is in trouble again. Over the past decade we have seen the Royal Opera House and Royal Shakespeare Company go to the edge of extinction. English National Ballet, Scottish Opera, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and others too numerous and morbid to mention have likewise sunk into a mess for which there is never a lasting resolution, only added layers of paperwork and, in some instances, a temporary hiatus of inspired leadership.
The crises in British arts are not coincidental nor, as is often alleged, a consequence of underfunding. As predictable as daisies on a lawn, they are seeded in a formula that dates back to 1945 when Maynard Keynes secured public cash for the arts in exchange for a supervisory mechanism administered by the great and the good. The Arts Council was designed, in Keynes's phrase, 'to stimulate, comfort and support' artistic initiative, preserving an arm's length detachment both from government and from the companies it funded. Covent Garden, its largest beneficiary, had a board made up of such brains as Sir Isaiah Berlin, Lord Annan, the arts historian John Pope-Hennessy and the government statistician, Professor Claus Moser. If a problem arose, a committee would be formed under the avuncular chairmanship of Lord Goodman, producing an inevitable recommendation for extra funding, usually fulfilled.
That method stopped working under Margaret Thatcher but the structure was left unaltered. The boards are now composed mostly of businessmen who are not supposed to meddle in the company's business, while the Arts Council has become an enforcer of government directives. When something goes wrong, everyone points fingers and no-one takes blame.
The ENO disaster, which is not over yet by a long chalk, was precipitated by a board decision to get rid of Sean Doran, the unusually vague artistic director and chief executive, replacing him with two deputies, Loretta Tomasi and John Berry. The chairman, Martin Smith, was subsequently forced to resign over the board's refusal to throw open these jobs to the best candidates in accordance with public rules.
'Would John and Loretta be at the top of everyone's list on some absolute criteria? Absolutely not,' admits the acting chairman, Vernon Ellis. Yet the pair have been confirmed in their jobs and no-one on the board can understand why public confidence has collapsed. ENO is about to revive Jonathan Miller's 20 year-old Palm Court production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado (though without Miller's involvement). At the risk of stressing a metaphor, the Lord High Executioner may have more work to do offstage at the Coliseum than on.
Who, in sober mind, would presently entrust a million of hard-earned to a company where the lines of authority blur into haze, a company whose next chairman will chosen in consultation with an Arts Council that refuses to acknowledge its own mistakes? What we have at the heart of British arts is a who, me? culture where the concept of personal responsibility is as alien as the dress codes of Titipu.
The road ahead has been shown in Wales, where the Assembly is proposing to relieve the national opera of Arts Council control. About time, too. The lively arts are held back by having to go through a middleman when museums and galleries deal directly with government. National galleries have no trouble attracting private funds, not least because they are transparently run. National opera houses and theatres should be put on the same footing.
Beyond Arts Council abolition, there is a case to be made for board reform. One feels sympathy for money men like Martin Smith and Vernon Ellis who are expected to sit on their hands while amateurish arts folk run havoc with budgets. There is no reason to maintain this Keynesian separation. A strong artistic director with an executive chairman and managerial board is the best pairing for the 21st century. If you won't take my word, ask Mrs Bass.
To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]