A return on our investment?

Why can’t the Arts Council invest in commercial shows and use the profits to support more arts organisations?

This question occurred to me as I was reading Ruairidh Nicoll’s piece in the Observer about the Royal Opera House. He points out that the ROH only has 2,268 seats, so it can never, ever be a ‘people’s palace’, even if the seats were a quarter of the price (to be fair, you can still stand for four quid). However, the Royal Albert Hall has something over 6,000 seats, and Raymond Gubbay uses it to put on huge, popular and increasing critically-acclaimed productions such as his current Madame Butterfly.

If the Arts Council were to be able to buy a few shares in that, it would do a number of things: make money for ACE which it could distribute elsewhere; get a return on the money ACE has already put in over decades to the creation of the talent which Mr Gubbay is able to draw on to produce his shows (including great backstage and technical staff); show approval of and support for Mr Gubbay’s entirely laudable aim to bring opera to a wider audience; increase the cash at Mr Gubbay’s disposal at the outset of a production, enabling him to continue and increase the artistic success of his work.

No doubt this sounds naive and possibly old hat, but maybe it’s an idea that could come round again in the endless turning of Fortune’s wheel. (I do hope you noticed that reference to another hugely money-spinning choral and orchestral work.) It’s a model used by the UK Film Council, though perhaps we oughtn’t to say that out loud given that body’s imminent demise.

The ROH is going to take the Royal Ballet to the O2 Arena, which is a great idea and for which they have to sell 52,000 seats. Will this make money? If so, could the Arts Council have bought into it and generated some funds? I can’t see why they shouldn’t be able to – plenty of registered charities invest to generate financial return which can then be put to good charitable use.

Of course there would be downsides – if the show tanks, then that’s public money down the drain. However, I feel sure there’s a way to minimise the potential damage – for example by using ring-fenced reserves, and also by being very careful when choosing which shows to back.

Some of you will be thinking that this is a bit of a right-wing idea to come from the pen of Lady Eff, but there again, most of us have our savings in interest-generating funds, and this idea is not so very different.

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Published in: on March 6, 2011 at 12:53  Comments (3)  

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  1. Catherine, what you suggest sounds eminently logical and a good idea. But I think it could be a recipe for loss and disaster. Entrepreneurship of the type you describe requires a particular mindset. With no disrespect to Arts Council staff, if they had that mindset, they wouldn’t be working at the Arts Council which is broadly public service, developmental and aesthetics-oriented. Adding extra tasks to a body like this which are simply not designed to do them invariably leads to mission-creep, confusion and failure. Tim Joss has written intelligently about the rather schizophrenic role the Arts Council currently has. That needs addressing rather than adding to its difficulties. In fact some of our regional theatre managers probably have better skills in entrepreneurship than ACE as, they have been developing public/private co-production deals for the last 20 years or so – and making money from them. And the new NT Live cinema relay deals and live broadcast developments suggest they are wise to the opportunities.

    • Thanks Paul – I didn’t have enough time yesterday to enumerate all the downsides so I’m grateful to you for doing it for me (and indeed better than I could). However I meant to say that I wouldn’t expect the current ACE people to do it: they’d have to get in a specialist team – not a very big one though. Or maybe, as you suggest, leave it to regional managers to make money in this way!

  2. A friend of mine who is always saying intersting things about what I write but never posts here left me this message on Facebook which I’m going to share with you.
    There is a link to an article about Raymond Gubbay in the Jewish Chronicle: click here to read it. http://www.thejc.com/arts/theatre/46037/raymond-gubbay-barometer-english-taste

    She also says:
    Only thing to think about is that Gubbay is making harsh cuts – the bands are not only reduced in size, they are actually incomplete on occasions, and there have been lots of complaints from (for example) tuba players at not being booked. Plus there are often fewer violas than cellos booked, which, as you know only too well, isn’t really on. But i think your idea is intersting, nonetheless.


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