Drowned out by the bigger players


As with theatre, it is the smaller companies in the opera and classical music world that are suffering most from Arts Council cuts – and future sponsorship by business is in doubt too, writes Michael Dervan

SUBSISTENCE HAS LONG been the name of the game for the arts in Ireland, including the Arts Council and a high proportion of the organisations it supports. The Government’s cutting of the Arts Council’s 2009 grant-in-aid was therefore bound to have some peculiar consequences.

The council’s own aspiration to achieve a funding level of €100 million from the Government has not just been missed by the proverbial mile, it’s now likely to remain out of reach for years. The target was hardly what could have been regarded as an outrageously high one. To put it in some kind of recognisable international context, it approximates to the annual operating budget of the Vienna State Opera. Remember when there were commentators who imagined Ireland to be one of the “wealthiest” countries in Europe?

It is by no means easy to predict what will happen or who will be worst hit when subsistence levels of arts support are cut back. The Arts Council, for example, has chosen to maintain funding at last year’s levels for both Opera Ireland and the Wexford Festival (which together receive a total of €3,146,900), but has withdrawn completely its much smaller support of €110,000 for the Cork-based Opera 2005.

The outcome of the 3.5 per cent cut in funding to companies who put on full-scale opera productions has been to force Opera 2005 to cancel “all major productions” for 2009. What this means is that a 3.5 per cent funding cut will translate into a 10 per cent drop in productions of Arts Council-funded full-scale opera this year. It’s an instance of the kind of economy of scale in reverse that seems set to plague the arts in Ireland for years to come. Yes, there will be organisations that come up with imaginative solutions. But there will be many others driven into the experience of negative multiplier effects.

The nightmares that the banking sector is living through will have consequences for the arts too. Sponsorship and other forms of corporate generosity will be reined in. One of the major musical sponsorships of recent years has been Anglo Irish Bank’s support of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s subscription series at the National Concert Hall. RTÉ has always given the impression that Anglo Irish managed to strike a happy balance between the supportive and demanding sides of sponsorship, meaning that the bank’s profile in the deal was clear but not obtrusive. Although the sponsorship was a long-term one, it was reviewed – and hitherto renewed – on an annual basis.

However, with the bank in a crisis that has led to its nationalisation, the sponsorship deal, believed to be worth six figures, may not survive assessment in the light of the new realities.

There are surely questions to be asked, too, about the long-term future for the award-winning sponsorship of the Dublin Theatre Festival by Ulster Bank, which ends its three-year term with this year’s festival. The Ulster Bank Group has announced 750 redundancies in Ireland and, beyond that, the bank’s extremely troubled parent, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), has a record-making loss of £28 billion (€29.9 billion) to deal with. On the other hand, the RTÉ NSO and the Dublin Theatre Festival may both take heart from RBS’s extension of its title sponsorship of the Six Nations tournament up to 2013. RBS’s explanation is that this sponsorship “has been selected to meet very specific business objectives within the six competing nations”.

ALL IS NOTgloom and doom in the classical music world, not even for performing groups associated with RTÉ. The members of the RTÉ Vanbrugh String Quartet, already artists in residence at University College, Cork, have been appointed lecturers in chamber music at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama in Dublin, where one of their colleagues will be pianist Barry Douglas, who recently became a visiting lecturer. The RTÉ NSO has been back in the recording studio for Naxos, and a new recording of the Second Symphony by Portuguese composer Luís de Freitas Branco has just been issued. The performance is conducted by Álvaro Cassuto, one of whose earlier recordings with the orchestra (of the Fourth Symphony by another Portuguese composer, Joly Braga Santos) won a Cannes Classical Award in 2004.