Delayed for over a week, the release of Arts Council England’s latest funding round landed with a thud on Friday – with the headline announcement of the total reduction in National Portfolio funding to English National Opera.

But a series of serious reductions were also visited on contemporary music organisations, with some losing all of their portfolio funding.

Musicians of the London Sinfonietta
© Tore Sætre | Wikimedia Commons

This included a total reduction in funding to the Cambridge-based Britten Sinfonia. The group, founded in 1992, is Associate Ensemble at the Barbican.

The oboist Nicholas Daniel, whose wind group formed the basis of the ensemble when it was founded, called the decision “Shocking and mind numbing … Very hard to understand”. Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani called the decision “frankly, mental” labelling the group “one of the world’s great ensembles”. Sakari Oramo, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, lambasted the decision: “Terrible news. Those bloody philistines.”

The Britten Sinfonia stated to Bachtrack that while the organisation “appreciates that Arts Council England has had to make some difficult decisions in the current economic climate, the loss of its ACE grant and NPO status is a huge disappointment for the orchestra.” They also reconfirmed their commitment to delivering learning and participation projects, but are “now assessing the impact moving forward.”

Further organisations shredded by the Arts Council knife include the Manchester-based Psappha, another contemporary music organisation outside of the capital. The group has only fairly recently moved to the renovated premises of St Michael’s, Ancoats. It celebrated its thirtieth birthday this year, which The Guardian called “fabulously assured”.

Meanwhile, the London Sinfonietta, Britain’s oldest continuously running contemporary music ensemble, lost 41% of its funding. This amounts to the largest percentage reduction to a retained national portfolio music organisation, other than Glyndebourne.

In a statement, they said: “We acknowledge the privilege to be in receipt of public funding for the arts, not least at this time when there are such pressures on public funding,” but that “in light of this funding news, we will need to spend time adjusting our long-term plans.”

The Barbican, City of London
© Wikimedia Commons | delegateconnectimages

It also appears, from the data released, that London’s Barbican Centre has received a 100% reduction in funding.

In a statement to Bachtrack, the Barbican said: “We are very grateful for the funding ACE has provided us over the past years, and fully appreciate the changing landscape.” They did not deny receiving a 100% reduction in portfolio funding.

The contemporary music charity Sound and Music also lost over 30% of its portfolio funding. In a statement the charity said that the “reduction in our NPO grant will be challenging” but that they “warmly welcome all new entrants into the national portfolio, especially those who champion new music and the people who create it.” (The smaller contemporary music and crossover charity Sound UK Arts also saw a total reduction in funding.)

Other contemporary music-oriented organisations, such as the radio station NTS Live, appear to have lost 100% of their portfolio funding. Likewise, the well-regarded East London experimental music venue Café Oto declined to reapply for funding, without any rise to their small grant for many years.

Some organisations have received modest uplifts. Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the largest festival of contemporary music in Europe, received a 16% increase to their portfolio funding. The Spitalfields Festival, in East London, saw an increase of 37%, while the record label NMC, which specialises in releases by living British composers, received a 23% increase.

Some contemporary music organisations joined the national portfolio roster for the first time. Manchester Collective, a small group that curates contemporary music series to tour to multiple cities across England, receives £120,000. The Multi-Story Orchestra, founded by composer Kate Whitley and conductor Christopher Stark, which has a direct outreach model, often working with schoolchildren and other young people, receives £150,000.

Arts Council England does not release data on those organisations rejected for national portfolio inclusion. It also does not publicly release rationales for those organisations that have lost 100% of their funding.

If any general trends can be spotted in the funding reorganisation, one is that the Council wishes to orient funding towards organisations with a more direct focus on diversity and outreach. Cuts may have been visited on organisations whose efforts in these directions the Council judged to be half-hearted, or inadequate.

Youth orchestras, such as the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, the National Youth Jazz Collective, and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, all receive a 92% increase to their funding. The National Children’s Orchestras of Great Britain joins the portfolio, with a grant of £300,000, as does Contemporary Music for All (CoMA), with a grant of £115,000. The Chineke! Foundation, which supports Black and ethnic-minority classical musicians (and runs Europe’s only majority Black and ethnic-minority orchestra) also joins the portfolio, with a yearly grant of £700,000.

That the Arts Council feels a need to step in and heavily invest in arts education – and pressure its national portfolio members to do similarly – indicates just how neglected and dismantled arts education provision has become by Central Government.

All this is set against a background of inflation and a general cost-of-living increase, where even unchanged funding amounts to a real-terms cut. Circumstances are already economically gloomy in the culture industries, with low wages, poor job security, and compulsory redundancies in many organisations. A nominal increase to the portfolio fund nonetheless hides retrenchment in many places across the country – not just in the capital. (The 34% reduction to the grant to Welsh National Opera is especially shocking.)

The ultimate impact of these decisions will be felt by musicians and arts workers and their families, already in straitened and difficult circumstances recovering from the Coronavirus pandemic. And in the end, it is audiences who will suffer.