Just Say No to State Funding

Subsidy cuts give classical music the chance to thrive without government interference

Music

What on earth was I going to tell the Dutch? On a long train ride to Amsterdam I had to think of something to bring cheer to a culture that was being politically gutted.

A right-wing government planned cuts of up to 60 per cent in arts budgets, threatening the abolition of Holland’s oldest opera company, several orchestras, any number of theatres and galleries and — as it happened — the organisation that had invited me to keynote its conference, the Dutch Classical Music Meeting (DCMM), which every two years showcases creative innovation.

It was not so much the savagery of the cuts as the rhetoric that accompanied them. An incoming minister bragged of never having visited a museum and, taken to see van Gogh’s, declared a preference for Disneyland. These new populists decried, in the same contradictory breath, the “Islamisation” of Holland and its “elitist” cultural heritage. Media that once fawned on culture had turned collaborationist and spat on it. This was ten degrees of climate change and there was no strategy to tackle it.

The arts in Holland had always had it so good. There were orchestras at 40-km-intervals across the land. The Concertgebouw hall in Amsterdam, playing 75 per cent full, was deemed perfectly efficient. A mistrust of tall tulips prevented anyone from standing up and suggesting improvements. I tried it once, at a convention of Dutch orchestras, and saw faces in the audience shut down like sunflowers at dusk. But that was 2007. Now the house was burning and they summoned a fireman. What jet of cold reality could I direct at the blaze? And how might it relieve the arts sector in other countries that were facing lesser, though mounting, pressures?

In the first place, I advocated that we recognise the collapse of four pillars that had upheld the orchestral economy since 1945. Recording was no longer a commercial activity; tours were drying up; private and corporate funding was imperilled in recession; and states which once regarded arts patronage as a civic duty were either retreating from the commitment or, more often, imposing onerous obligations in exchange for the next cheque.

The arts were all too willing to oblige. What would you like us to do this year in exchange for our meagre grant? Offer diversion for bored kids in state schools? Sure. Spread a little happiness in prisons — why not? Sweep the streets — where do we start? Bowing and scraping, the arts had turned obsequious and were losing self-respect.

Start-ups and small ensembles increasingly chose to avoid the state pittance. William Christie and Emmanuelle Haim in France set up period orchestras with no state cash in their business plan. Neville Marriner, England’s most recorded conductor, refused to waste precious time talking to the Arts Council. Two of Britain’s most successful small theatres — the Watermill in Newbury, Berks, and the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark — transfer their shows to the West End and Broadway without a penny of tax subsidy.

Freedom from government can be vastly liberating. Part of the deal with politicians was that the arts must be accessible. Shed that requirement and the language changes. The arts can embrace elitism — which is nothing more sinister than the stubborn pursuit of excellence — and stop pretending that art is for all (it never was). That, in turn, allows artists to choose what they perform, no matter how abstruse, without regard to social relevance. It also empowers them to revalue their product. With state funding, the arts could not charge what they liked. Without it, they can set the prices as high as a football club does for international matches and souvenir shirts. 

I would propose just two price bands for concert, opera and theatre tickets — €5 at the low end, €500 at the top, varying the proportion in each bracket according to the calibre of performers. Is that a valid model? It works well for airlines. 

Instead of talking to politicians and fixers, the arts need to spend more time on customer relations. No airline treats passengers as contemptuously as concert halls and theatres do ticket holders — shove them in, rip them off for a programme and drink and leave them to find their own way around. The arts need to learn a thing or two from fundamentalist religion, which (as the Dutch know all too well) attracts new followers by greeting them at the doorway of the mosque, church or synagogue, asking if they need help with the service and inviting them home for lunch. What the arts need is not state support but more dedicated customer support.

They also need to decide, in an elitist mindset, not to bother with the illusion of mass audience. In the 21st century, the mass audience flocks to rock concerts, celebrity stakeouts and McDonald’s. Classical music is not mainstream culture. It is one of a myriad of micro-cultures and it needs to be marketed and targeted in ways that are just starting to be developed online.

I could give numerous examples; space confines me to one. A Ukrainian pianist, Valentina Lisitsa, unable to get a date in Carnegie Hall, set up video cameras in her Texas studio and filmed herself playing Chopin, Rachmaninov and Beethoven. She then posted the results on YouTube. This summer I noticed she had almost two million views on some pieces, outstripping Lang Lang and Hélène Grimaud many times over. Lisitsa is fast becoming a cult figure. After I wrote about her status, the Royal Albert Hall booked her for a solo recital before the London Olympics. By the time you read this, she will have a major label contract and a mainstream career.

 The online bonus is that classical music need no longer live within walls of concert halls and corsets of state rules. The cuts in arts budgets represent an empowering opportunity. 

Some ensembles may die — but only from an excess of caution. Those that seize the moment to reclaim creative independence will emerge from the economic downturn far stronger, more diverse and more versatile than they ever dared to dream of before. Music, in this world crisis, has nothing to lose but its chains.