Selling The Crown Jewels

by Neil Nisbet

The notion that The Royal Opera House along with Royal Ballet and Royal Opera, the house ‘s two incumbent companies, should be privatised to reduce the burden on Arts Council England ‘s (ACE) funding stream for dance and music is nothing new. With small-scale and mid-scale companies being squeezed for funding and dancers pay and health care provision stagnating we thought it was about time the case was made again for removing the UK ‘s two lumbering goliaths from the public arts sector.

The Current Thinking

As of 2004/2005 Covent Garden received over £23million in subsidy from ACE. As so-called ‘National Companies ‘, RB and RO are subject to infrequent funding reviews and the money they get is pretty much guaranteed no matter what they do or how well they perform, financially or otherwise. With over 1,000 members of staff, not all of them full time, and a prime location in Central London at Covent Garden the two companies are the jewel in the crown of the English arts establishment and the mere suggestion of taking away their public financial support generates reactions of horror and disbelief from those that hold them close to their hearts.

The annual turnover of ROH is £62million with the rest of the money coming from ticket sales and sponsorship. RB ‘s press officer was at pains to point out that for every £1 received in subsidy they must raise £2 from other sources in order to keep working. A cynical person might suggest that if they could raise £2 so easily then raising another £1 shouldn ‘t be too difficult but we ‘re not that cynical!

The £1 Plan
With an estimated workforce in the UK of 30 million people we think the £1 plan is a good way to raise some additional funding for the arts.

It works by deducting £1 from the pay packet of every working person in the UK every week. This funding will go directly into the arts for the development of community arts participation.

You may be thinking that you already pay taxes so why should you pay more to cover the arts in this way? well it is very, very simple.

Imagine you are a family with 3 children and all of your children attend dance classes at least twice a week at your local arts centre or national Dance Agency. This will cost you about £23 for all those classes without concessions.

Because we are raising £1.5billion per year for arts participation programmes through the deduction of that £1 per week the classes are already paid for through direct funding to the arts centre or NDA so your children can attend the classes for free or a very small fee.

You may be paying an additional £1 from your pay packet but you save £22 on the classes for your children.

Of course the funding can be used for a wide range of programmes and not just dance related ones.

Why Privatise?

It has long been argued by many people that ROH is a rich persons plaything and as such those who wish to attend the facility should contribute more to its upkeep. Ticket prices are, for the most part, beyond the reach of most people even the more affluent types in London. Tickets are available for just £4* but for that money the view you get of the stage is so poor you have to ask yourself is it really worth bothering with?

It is also particularly irritating for many that the public purse spends such large sums of money on ROH and yet the general public is forced to sit in the cheap seats because seats in the grand circle range in price from £85 to £50 for an evening show. Is it still acceptable for ROH to say to the public that pay ‘s for it; you can come in and watch but you either get a lousy seat or you can sit out in the cold and watch on a video screen?

There is also the prickly issue of audience numbers. The Royal Ballet press officer told us that ROH received 609,000 attendees last year alone. Indeed; ROH makes more money from ticket sales than it does from ACE subsidy. However, raw ticket sales are one thing but the number of actual people going to the theatre per year is another matter.

When you take the figure of 609,000 you have to remember that the number is not made up of 609,000 different people. It would only take 69,000** people coming to ROH 10 times per year to make up that number of attendees, we shall call this their ‘reach ‘. Taking the amount of subsidy into account for the year 2004/2005 at £23,110,841 then you can quickly work out that ROH receives £335 for each person that attends.

If we take one of the country ‘s more successful contemporary companies, Motionhouse***, to draw a comparison then we would see that for an ACE subsidy of just £61,637 for 2003/2004 they attracted an audience of 12,000 for their last full length production ‘Volatile ‘ and its ‘satellite ‘ performances. This gives Motionhouse a per-audience subsidy of just £5.15. We can also be pretty sure that the numbers attending the company ‘s shows were 12,000 different people because smaller companies only perform once in each venue for the majority of their tour.

Motionhouse also tour across the country so their ‘reach ‘ is far greater than that of the companies based in Covent Garden. It should go without saying that tickets for their shows are also much cheaper.

Big Ballet USA

Big ballet companies can exist all on their own, almost, with little or no subsidy from the government. If we take New York City Ballet (NYCB) as an example there are some very revealing comparisons. The company is almost the same size, in terms of the number of dancers, compared to the Royal Ballet and they perform almost as many shows. Their repertory is substantially different however, requiring less lavish set and costume design since they are focused more on the works of Balanchine and others.

Ticket prices for the performances given by NYCB are much cheaper than those to see Royal Ballet at a similar sized venue, even without a very favourable exchange rate the tickets would still be a lot less expensive. In terms of technical and artistic competence there are few that could argue that NYCB was not a favourable comparison to RB.

Comparing companies from different countries is always problematic however. There are cultural differences and more importantly there are different legal and taxation systems that make raising private and corporate sponsorship in the USA a very different challenge than it is in the UK.

A recent study by Mercer Human Resource Consulting ranked London as the second most expensive city in the world and New York was not that much better in twelfth position so the cost of living would appear not to be a major factor in the cost of running a large scale ballet company.

Raising the Dough!

Their presence in London and the facilities they have available to them, not to mention the staff, makes it easier if not easy for ROH to raise funds from corporate sponsors. Some changes in the law would be nice to help large arts institution raise money from sponsors by providing tax breaks or tax incentives for giving to the arts. Large multi-nationals are more likely to sponsor the bigger companies for the corporate benefits they can provide such as impressing big clients with trips to the opera followed by a nice banquet and some court jesters in the lobby!

A recent piece by Guardian reporter Murray Armstrong detailed the corporate giving trends of the top 100 companies in the UK. In his report he determined that community giving by large corporations is holding at just under 1% on average of pre tax profits. Some companies give much more some give much less but there is still enormous potential for fund raising if the companies are given sufficient incentives to do so by either government or those seeking the sponsorship.

It is almost impossible for small to mid-scale companies to attract significant sponsorship because they have so little to offer in terms of corporate hosting and facilities and blue chip PR types like expensive surroundings. Most contemporary companies have to ask their dancers to load and unload the technical equipment on tour never mind being able to finesse money from Tatlock, Wheellibin and Carpet, accountants to posh folk.

It may also be prudent for ROH to cut costs somewhere along the line. Not for one second do we think that dancers or musicians should be culled but cutting back on lavish productions and expensive guest artists may be a good idea, especially when you have just lost your ACE funding.

What to do with £25million?

For the financial year 2005/2006 ROH will receive £24,886,154. What could we do with such a large sum of money we here you asking yourself? Spend it on contemporary dance of course! Now we know that there are other forms of dance out there but for the purposes of this exercise let ‘s look at one particular form since it is the most predominant in the UK.

The money not spent on ROH could be directed to the following;

  • Would provide 500 professional dancers with a pay scale of £28,125 per year that would include full private health care coverage, with physiotherapy and critical illness payment cover for 5 years with £50,000 in benefits. The pay for dancers is independent of the company they work for so applies to independent artists, full time education workers and so-on and guarantees a 45 week working year. (we have not included holiday or sick pay)****
  • Funding increase for the 21 listed contemporary companies on ACE ‘s 3 year fix term funding by £250,000 per company. This is in addition to their funding levels for the year 05/06.
  • Provides £1.25million per year for the establishment of 10 new dance company ‘s with 5 or more dancers per company at £125,000 per company.
  • £1million per year would be provided for infrastructure such as maintenance of existing spaces, hiring space for rehearsals, investment in equipment and ‘equipment pools ‘ These would be resources of advanced or expensive technology that could benefit a large number of dancers and companies.
  • £1.75million per year for touring to assist in the logistics of touring and better promotion of those tours to try and get more folks into the theatre in the first place.
  • £1.1million per year contingency for inflation provision year on year. Any funds not used could be pooled into a small trust that could be used for various purposes.

The finer points of the financial planning have not been worked out, this is merely an outline to illustrate the points being made. Here at Article19 we think it far better to spend £25million per year providing 500 professional dancers and independent artists with a guaranteed income and a 45 week working year than constantly capitulating to the often surreal and socially disconnected world of classical ballet and opera.

Remember; the funding provided to dance companies no longer has to be used to pay the dancers and with an increase of £¼million for the 21 fixed term funded companies their production values could reach new heights and perhaps the full potential of contemporary dance makers could be realised.

Establishing a solid funding stream for new companies like Birmingham based BareBones*** would be a much needed boost to emerging dancers, dance makers and new ways of thinking about and presenting dance to existing and new audiences.

The sheer volume of work in creation, performance and community work achieved at present by the contemporary community far exceeds any outreach work carried out by ROH. With this kind of funding boost there would be a tremendous increase in energy and motivation and the ability to deliver longer-term projects with a genuine impact on the participants would come tantalisingly close to being a reality.

In addition, the funding would increase dramatically the number of opportunities for independent musicians, designers and technicians to work with professional dance companies.

The Royal Opera House is a poor national investment. Impressive as the facilities and the companies might be to some people the crippling lack of artistic adventure and isolation of the companies in London where they serve a tiny minority of the population provides more strength to the argument that they should be cut loose from the public funding stream and forced to survive on their own.

A well funded core of 500 contemporary dancers, teachers and community workers along with 31 better funded companies would provide a tremendous army or ground troops taking new and exciting work to the entire country and delivering the best creative education work money can buy.

  • *This figure is for Ballet performances, Opera shows are more expensive.
  • ** The figure of 69,000 is only a guess since precise figures are not available. We suggest this number is a very generous estimate of the actual number of different people attending ROH performances. It is not unrealistic to expect a theatre’s established audience to attend the venue 10 or more times per year. Some will attend more, some will attend less, we have averaged this out to find the middle ground.
  • *** Neither Motionhouse or BareBones are in any way associated with Article19.
  • **** This gives the dancer a take home pay of £428.16 per week after
    deductions and health insurance