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Proposals for radical change would ordinarily be met with derision by most orchestra boardrooms, says Julian Forbes. But current circumstances make it essential to think long and hard about how well their product is aligned with a market, and how it can become more competitive.

small chamber orchestra performing with period instruments
Arcangelo rehearsing with Artistic Director Jonathan Cohen

Ben Tomlin

For weeks, the arts industry has been on damage control. Arts Council England (ACE) has invoked most of its reserves as part of a £160m emergency response package; Help Musicians UK has coordinated £5m of emergency aid for individuals. Promoters have invited patrons to donate their tickets instead of claiming refunds. Performing organisations have switched off lights and desks, and taken up mitigating measures like furloughing and VAT return deferment. Individual freelancers are consolidating as best they can, teaching online, taking alternative employment, and securing rent or mortgage holidays.

Shocks to come

So much for the Smash, but what about the Crunch. On paper, some of the 2020/21 season is going ahead. Listings are live, and booking is opening. But ticket sales are lacklustre and a survey by Indigo suggests that audiences’ interest in evenings enclosed with 500-1,000 people known overwhelmingly for their tendency to cough will not recover until November. Throughout the winter, wariness will persist as the world keeps watch for Corona’s second wave. In the meantime, public safety measures could reduce venue capacities by 50% or more. By the end of Season 2020/21, promoters will have had two back-to-back financial shockers.

Throughout the 2020/21 season at least two other dynamics will be in play. The first will be reduced funding. Pre-Covid trailers of the government’s 2020 spending review indicated funding cuts to Arts Council England, with knock-on implications for the 800-plus National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs). I’d wager that ACE and the NPOs will not get all of what they were expecting for the remainder of 2018-22. Further down the money tree, some Trusts and Foundations have temporarily shut their grant application portals; there is no state relief for their walloped investment portfolios. Private donors’ inboxes are filling up with beautifully-crafted shrieks.

A second dynamic will be about rescheduling. For various reasons, promoters have in many cases not cancelled 2019/20’s engagements but postponed them – but until when? 2021/22 was already largely sorted and further seasons were already firming up. Behind the scenes, a Thermopylaean scrap is brewing between agents, managers and venues all trying to resolve the puzzle to best advantage. There will be deception, bulldozering and straight-up shafting, and ultimately high-profile artists and their stronger box-office guarantees will get priority reinstatement, displacing opportunities for lesser stars. As promoters’ budgets are trimmed the situation will be compounded. For 2021/22 and beyond, most performing organisations will need to be pitching cheaper (=smaller) projects at fewer available dates.

Partnerships = resilience

So there’s the Crunch. An intense pressure to work again on the one hand, fewer opportunities and less money to welcome work on the other. How to survive? My early instincts are: make partnerships, and rediscover your home audience.

Partnership offers resilience through efficiency and creativity. At a time when we all need to shed fixed costs, consolidation of premises and facilities offer constructive options. Beyond savings, flatmate organisations will inevitably start sharing more than the photocopier: knowledge and networks will grow. More daringly, now is the time for arts organisations to think beyond the traditional reservation of ‘our concert’ and to brave a collaboration with another ensemble, maybe even a real or perceived rival. Popular music has worked this kind of fusion for decades – if Basie X Ellington and Swift X Perry, what’s stopping us?

It must originate in sincerity and enthusiasm, and there will be practical and artistic challenges, but if I’m right about the contraction of available presenting space and budgets, then this approach offers a way for more ensembles to keep alive than the glorious isolationism which we’ve so vociferously renounced throughout Brexit.  There are some good pre-Covid examples out there already in my particular (period) sector of the orchestra world: Solomon’s Knot (UK) and Les Passions de l’Ame (Switzerland); Vox Luminis (Belgium) and Freiburger Barockorchester (Germany) frequently share a billing. On a purely creative level, these double-acts are interesting for audiences, too. Here’s to more twinning.

Audiences on the doorstep

The wind has been blowing towards home audiences for a while, shaped by debates around environmental impact and ACE’s long-gathering shift in favour of ‘creative communities’. Post-Covid, post-Brexit, the whole business of touring brims with added uncertainty, admin and cost. It all adds up to a welcome return to the idea that arts organisations are defined by their home city and, by extension, their home community. After all, who are you for? Your own people offer a ceaselessly rewarding mission; take a look at Birmingham Opera Company or the Boston Children’s Chorus for inspiration.

But organisations have to tour, runs the counter-argument, because they need to do more shows per season than the home audience can support. Look at it another way – are you doing too many shows, and could you be offering your home city and community something else and more? Or do you need to find a new home? These questions would elicit the full gamut of derision from most orchestra boardrooms, but they are questions which other businesses ask routinely every week: is our product aligned with a market, is it optimised for sale, how can we make it more competitive? When the market gets grizzly, other businesses routinely adapt.

The ‘normality’ illusion

Change daunts with manifold consequences. Under normal conditions we approach it warily and arrive late. Our present extraordinary situation gifts us all with an overriding impulse to change. Whatever new reality takes shape over the coming months will also be a new habitat, and a new acoustic. It is hard to know what to do right now, with so much dependent on wider and higher uncertainties, conditions and contingencies. One thing to avoid is the delusion of “getting back to normal.”

Julian Forbes is General Manager of Arcangelo

Link to Author(s): 
Julian Forbes


There's approx. 20% of England's population who can only experience professional live performing arts actually in their own communities through touring. Few of them have a resident company who can offer them 'something else or more'. Research parallel to Indigos research indicates that rural residents who attend performances as part of the extensive rural touring (RT)network in the UK are happier to return to their very local community venue sooner than to any other venue. Certainly there is a new opportunity or perhaps impetus (as the opportunity has always been there) for larger and/or urban based providers new to RT, to work in partnership with the RT network. However that must be alongside the many companies (across all artforms) who either exist for or are substantially supported by the rural circuit who are less likely to be able find an audience 'at home'. Perhaps there's also a chance for those larger providers to seek out and work in partnership with their local already existing companies who know the 'lie of the land' but will need support to make and tour the work.