visual culture wales

Articles by Huw David Jones

Subsidy, Patronage and Sponorship: The Case of Scottish Opera

I’m presenting a paper at the Subsidy, Patronage and Sponsorship conference at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London later this week.  The conference, organised by the University of Reading, comes out of the AHRC project ‘Giving Voice to the Nation’: The Arts Council and the development of theatre and performance in Britain 1945-1995, directed by Dr Graham Saunders.

The conference’s theme is ‘theatre and performance in uncertain times’ – a nod to the financial problems faced by arts organisations following the Coalition Government’s cuts in arts funding.  My own paper, entitled ‘Too Big to Fail – Scottish Opera under Thatcher’, looks back at the last time the arts faced a major squeeze in subsidy through the case of Scottish Opera, which this year celebrates its half century, and is based on research I did at the Centre for the Cultural Policy Research a few years ago for an AHRC project on the history of the Scottish Arts Council.

Scottish Opera was founded in 1962 by the great Scottish conductor, Alexander Gibson.  It expanded rapidly throughout the 1960s and 1970s on the back of escalating subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council and local government; it extended its touring programme to the north of England and acquired the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, in 1973 and its own orchestra in 1979.

By the end of the 1970s Scottish Opera accounted for 25% of the total expenditure of the arts in Scotland.  But with the election of the Thatcher government, the squeeze on arts subsidy pushed the company further into debt, and by 1983 it faced bankruptcy.

To solve the crisis, Scottish Opera wanted to cut its touring programme and concentrate on performances at the Theatre Royal – a strategy called ‘Fortress Glasgow’.  Yet this was unacceptable to the Scottish Arts Council, which believed that, as a national company, Scottish Opera had a duty to reach audiences throughout Scotland.

With Scottish Opera’s board threatening to resign, the Scottish Secretary, George Younger, intervened with a series of supplementary payments which cleared the company’s debts.  Younger, who later went on to become Scottish Opera’s Honorary Vice-President, believed the company brought national status and economic investment to Scotland. Yet the bailouts meant Scottish Opera failed to address its underlining structural problems, and the company continued to get into financial difficulties throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

The Scottish Arts Council made several attempts to solve Scottish Opera’s financial problems, encouraging the company to share resources with other arts organisations.  Yet each time the proposals failed.  Eventually,  the new Scottish Executive offered Scottish Opera a £5m lifeline on the condition that it axed its chorus and relinquished control of the Theatre Royal.  In 2007 the SNP Government decided to would be safer to directly fund Scottish Opera – along with Scotland’s other four national companies – to keep a closer eye on its finances.

What can we learn from Scottish Opera’s troubled financial history? For arts organisations, the lesson is one about how to make the case for additional funding.  Scottish Opera won special favours from government by claiming it encouraged economic investment and brought national status to Scotland.   Yet from the point of view of governments and funding bodies, the lesson is really one about making sure arts organisations don’t take on too many liabilities, because when the bad times come – as they invariably do – these liabilities can place intolerable constraints on the ability of policymakers to manage a diverse and sustainable arts ecology.

Indeed, it’s interesting to note that Scotland’s newest national company, National Theatre Scotland, has no theatre building of its own and commissions work by others – a far better model, I think, for small nations.

Susan Galloway and I published a more detailed account of Scottish Opera and the Scottish Arts Council in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies in 2011.

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