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As the dust settles on ACE's announcement of its new portfolio, Mark Pemberton unpacks the numbers to see what the outcome is for orchestras and opera companies.

Paraorchestra playing in streets of Bristol
Paraorchestra perform SMOOSH! in Knowle West, Bristol

Paul Blakemore

To give credit where it is due, Arts Council England has increased investment in the orchestral sector from £23m in 2022-23 to £24.6m for 2023-24. While taking nothing away from the pain of seeing the total disinvestment of Britten Sinfonia, and significant cuts to some of the London orchestras, we should celebrate the inclusion of Chineke!, Manchester Collective, Multi-Story and Orchestras for All in the national portfolio, along with increases for Aurora Orchestra and the Paraorchestra. 

This reflects ACE’s strategy to refresh the portfolio to include a wider and more diverse range of ensembles. In addition, there has been an increase in funding for the national youth orchestras, with National Children’s Orchestras coming into the portfolio for the first time.

There has also been a huge increase in investment in organisations that support the orchestral sector - in music education, community engagement and inclusion - from £535,000 to more than £2m. This will have a direct impact on diversifying the talent pipeline to the benefit of the UK’s orchestras.

Value of a collective voice

These increases are testimony to the work that the Association of British Orchestras and its members have done these past years to both articulate the public value of the orchestral sector and work with key agencies to forge change in what it means to be an orchestra today. Never has the value of a collective voice been more obvious.

It is also recognition of orchestras’ vital role in supporting music education. The recent Refreshed National Plan for Music Education in England noted the importance of our “national orchestras” in the successful delivery of music education through the ACE-funded Music Hubs.

Vital need to argue the case for opera

In contrast, the major casualty of this funding announcement has been opera. Even including the transition funding for English National Opera (ENO), the annual investment has decreased from £58.7m to £47m. 

The decision to disinvest from ENO over the next 3 years and impose significant cuts to Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne on Tour, will damage the viability of providing access to opera for audiences across England.

Unlike orchestras, there has not been a single voice or a representative body collating statistical evidence to argue the case for the value of opera companies as a collective. Perhaps this is at the root of the problem the sector faces now.

Pre-pandemic and following an attack on public funding for opera published in The Sun, there was discussion among the opera companies as to what their options were for forging a single voice and articulating their public value. With the recent creation of Opera UK, here’s hoping they can finally make progress.

Mark Pemberton OBE is the former Chief Executive of the Association of British Orchestras.

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