What is really behind the Wexford Festival Opera funding standoff?

Michael Dervan: Arts Council is in an almost unprecedented bind over grant for the event

Silence is golden. But not when you're an Arts Council client waiting to hear about your annual grant.

Each year the council hears about its own funding from Government at the beginning of October. It then deliberates and makes its decisions about how that funding will be allocated, though the council members themselves do not collectively deliberate over every single decision.

Decisions for smaller amounts are made by expert panels set up for that purpose or delegated to outside organisations tasked by the council to deal with specific schemes.

News about the big ticket grants is treated like a state secret, and the delay between the dates of the council’s own decisions and the communication of those outcomes to clients is often something of a mystery. The public announcement can be delayed further still.

The Government revealed its 2019 funding for the council on October 9th last, but information on the council's own major decisions was not issued until two weeks ago, February 13th. The biggest award, as ever, was the Abbey Theatre's €7 million. The companies receiving the largest funding in the area of classical music and opera were Irish National Opera (€2.98 million), the Irish Chamber Orchestra (€990,000), Music Network (€568,000), Chamber Choir Ireland (€443,000), the Contemporary Music Centre (€342,000), and West Cork Music, which runs the West Cork Chamber Music Festival (€318,000).

There's a big name missing. Wexford Festival Opera, which received €1.45 million in 2018, is not on the list. The official line on this issue has been reported in The Irish Times by Deirdre Falvey. The council is "committed to continuing its longstanding support of the festival" and has been working since last autumn "to better understand its current financial position". And the festival is grateful for "continued support in advance of our grant funding for 2019 being fully confirmed".

When this kind of issue is out there and nobody wants to say anything meaningful about it you can reasonably suspect that there’s something to hide. And when the Arts Council delays decisions it usually spells trouble.

The council has the money from the Government and it has the application from the festival. It has allocated grants in the Strategic Funding category under which Wexford falls, and yet no one is even talking about a target date for confirmation of funding.

High standing 

I asked the festival for a briefing on the situation, but the request was declined. Instead I was issued with the following statement. “I’m afraid it would be neither possible nor appropriate to set up a briefing while WFO continues to work closely with the Arts Council in advance of their confirmation of the grant for this year’s festival, which is expected shortly. The Arts Council, as you know from its statement, has reiterated its commitment to continue its support of the festival. In the meantime, plans for this year’s festival are progressing well in advance of the opening of bookings on March 23rd. Details of the full artistic programme will be announced shortly, to follow on from the details of the main repertoire previously announced.”

Wexford Festival Opera has long traded on its political nous and influence in the corridors of power

Wexford Festival Opera’s high international standing is not in doubt. It’s a magnet for lovers of rare opera and it won the festival category in the 2017 International Opera Awards. Its political clout is formidable. Witness its success in getting the State to fund the building of the new opera house it opened in 2008, the ministerial approval it received for renaming the Wexford Opera House as the National Opera House, and its receipt last year of a €1 million capital grant to refurbish the venue. And the black tie niche it has carved out in social elitism – of which I have always personally disapproved – has made it attractive to a range of upmarket sponsors.

Yet a look at its annual accounts shows a less stable picture. The festival’s financial fortunes have been swinging up and down. The most recent available accounts show that a profit of €138,324 for 2017 followed a loss of €366,335. And earlier accounts also show a swing between red and black in the region of half a million euro.

Timely decision

Neither the losses nor the swings had impacted the Arts Council’s ability to reach a timely decision about the support it was prepared to offer the festival. So, given the figures from the audited accounts, it seems most likely that the current situation would have to show a loss well in excess of €400,000. And the length of time that’s elapsed since the festival submitted its 2019 application last September suggests that any subsequent revisions of that application have also left the council in the almost unprecedented situation of having had to postpone a decision at least until March.

The council has had standoffs with major clients before, including both the Gate and Abbey theatres, and also, in the early years of the century, with Wexford Festival Opera itself, about the importing of orchestras from Belarus and Poland in preference to the employment of Irish musicians. As recently as January the Abbey had €300,000 of its funding withheld, pending assurances about the quality of employment opportunities for Irish-based artists.

Wexford Festival Opera has long traded on its political nous and influence in the corridors of power, and it has also used its status as an organisation that is too big to fail as leverage in its dealings with the wider world. The big question now, when its financial situation may be fraught, is whether it has the wherewithal to win a game of who blinks first with the Arts Council.