Richard Reeves and the funding of British orchestras

Last summer Richard Reeves, director of the thinktank Demos, wondered in the Financial Times whether the Association of British Orchestras, and the ensembles it represents, represented good value for money. Specifically, whether the ABO – an advocacy platform funded by the Arts Council of England – was the most efficient way to distribute ACE money.

Support for the arts could be substantially cut, forcing a much needed rationalisation. On current plans, the Arts Council will spend £6.3m in 2010/11 supporting five professional orchestras in London. The Association of British Orchestras, which “advocates on behalf of professional orchestras throughout the UK”, successfully by the looks of it, is also funded by the Arts Council. You do not have to be a philistine to wonder if this is money well spent.

In a letter to the FT, the ABO’s Mark Pemberton responded that ‘funding does not simply go towards work on the concert platform’:

All the orchestras have successful outreach programmes, reaching young people and disadvantaged communities and supporting music education in schools. Research about to be published by the ABO shows that 300,000 schoolchildren in England alone are attending live concerts each year. In relation to the ABO itself, our modest funding from ACE goes to support networking for our members, many of which are not funded by their respective Arts Council. And as our members are reporting an increase in ticket sales, and full houses, it hardly suggests that public investment is being wasted.

Now, fast forward to ABO’s annual conference, held last month in Glasgow. When they invited Reeves to give the opening keynote speech to their 2010 conference, the ABO must have expected some controversy. They weren’t disappointed: Reeves expanded on his theme, suggesting, as reported in The Herald, that:

Orchestras should receive significantly less public money;

That orchestras unfairly steer money away from projects in working class areas thanks to powerful middle class lobby groups;

That orchestras should spend the funds they do receive from the public purse on education and schools programmes, rather than putting on performances for affluent urbanites.

Reeves has subsequently, and predictably, come in for some robust criticism from orchestras and the classical music sector. He has responded to some of that criticism with a brief post on the Demos blog, where he maintains one of his central themes: that if they are to be deserving of taxpayers’ money, orchestras need to come up with better justifications for themselves.

[T]he classical music industry is in danger of becoming an echo-chamber, taking taxpayers’ money to pay middle class people to perform to middle class audiences – and branding anybody who questions this settlement a philistine. And that, I’m afraid, just won’t do.

Some of the criticism directed at Reeve’s arguments is, I believe, warranted (and I’ve commented in this vein on the Demos blog) but some of it is less so, and there is a danger that too many issues – orchestral funding, the social value of classical music, class, and music education – will be conflated and confused into one them-and-us firefight.

Unfortunately Reeves’s speech to the ABO delegates does not seem to be public, so it is difficult to speak in detail, but the more I read between the lines of his arguments about orchestral funding, the more I think that his real beef is with the almost non-existent provision of serious music study and participation within state schools. I maintain, as I comment on Demos, that to punish orchestras for the failures of the state education system put the relationship between musical education and orchestral attendance all backwards, but if that’s the issue let’s all agree to agree and work towards a solution. And if that means that better arguments need to be found, so be it. Those arguments are surely out there, waiting:



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