Arts funding – what it does, and why it matters

Will Gompertz raised vital issues in his "Today" programme coverage, but the reality is more complicated than it seems

It set the twittersphere alight – or at least that tiny corner of it concerned with the arts. Will Gompertz proposed on Tuesday’s Today programme that subsidising the arts doesn’t work because only 8 per cent of people in this country go to opera, ballet and classical concerts, and because they’re all sewn-up inside imposing London buildings. All nice and easy – a provocative headline and a stinging statistic in one fell swoop. But the truth is a little more complicated than that – and marginally more positive, too.

Two points to begin. If Gompertz’s interview subject speaking for London youth Fady Elsayed has "never seen one advert" for theatre or opera in the city, he either doesn’t use public transport or he should have gone to Specsavers. Adverts from Covent Garden, English National Opera, the Barbican et al might have varying degrees of communicative nous, but they exist –they’re commonplace and they’re big.

Secondly, the figures are skewed. Far more than 8 per cent of people in this country experience live opera, ballet and classical music. Many experience the arts as "a living element…[in] their upbringing" as John Maynard Keynes said they should when he founded the Arts Council. But their details don’t show up on box office receipts because they’re given free tickets or they are single, anonymous elements in large group bookings made by schools and colleges. After school, thousands of higher education students from varied backgrounds attend orchestral concerts; they’re contacted, welcomed, encouraged, talked-to and offered discounted tickets by marketing staff working for state-subsidised orchestras.

Theatre companies, opera companies and orchestras in this country present numerous performances for schools, families and community groups, some of them for free. That was consolidated in 2007 when the non-BBC symphony orchestras in the UK collectively promised to offer every schoolchild the chance to hear a live performance. However that bold promise is shaping up – it’s been dented but not extinguished by the most recent round of funding cuts – the very fact it was made underlines the single and most salient difference between subsidised and commercial art.

It’s interesting that Gompertz and Elsayed homed-in on buildings and the creatures who inhabit them as being the main sources of intimidation for people attending opera – I agree with the latter element wholeheartedly, as I’ve argued before. But it’s hard to play the architecture card when you consider that there are only three purpose-built opera houses in the United Kingdom operating as such, and one of them receives no subsidy. 

I spent the last week in Plymouth, watching operas and plays at the Theatre Royal where the concurrent visit from Glyndebourne On Tour and Flemish theatre collective Ontroerend Goed came between Marti Pellow in Blood Brothers and Christopher Biggins in the Christmas pantomime. The latter shows sold/will sell well; nobody can argue about architecture putting people off there. It’s not that the building isn’t beautiful – it is, and it’s about to get even more so (and more welcoming) thanks to an Arts Council redevelopment grant.  You might say it’s intimidating in its creative peacefulness, but that doesn’t stop people coming through the door to musicals, pantomime and comedy.

Opera North, English Touring Opera, Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne spend much of the year travelling to theatres (not opera houses) like these to deliver first-class performances of great works old and new. The Glyndebourne offerings are sometimes even more focused and slick than they are at the summer festival. Top-price tickets are only marginally more expensive than those for the blockbuster shows, but government subsidy means there are hundreds of seats available for less than twenty quid.

And who’s sat in them? On Thursday night’s Le nozze di Figaro in Plymouth there were dozens of schoolchildren, plenty of pensioners and a good deal who would fall in between – a far more diverse audience than your average pop gig attracts. We’d all like to see a broader cross section of our society watching plays, operas and concerts, and we’re making progress on that front. But I’m a Plymothian, and I felt as though my home city was probably better represented in those performances at the Theatre Royal than my "residing" city (London) is at Covent Garden. On Friday afternoon in Plymouth, the company performed Rusalka for an audience of schoolchildren and families.

Without arts subsidy Glyndebourne wouldn’t even have been in Plymouth. The schoolchildren – who mostly sat interested and surprised by Glyndebourne’s relevant, vivid and beautifully played Figaro – would probably have been engaging in something a good deal less wonderful and mind-expanding. That means nobody to develop an interest in the art form, grow up, earn a living, become a ticket-buyer and help increase that percentage figure Gompertz was touting. Which in turn means further exclusion, further intimidation and considerable embarrassment in the face of our European counterparts who are proving that increased subsidy of the arts aids society and contributes to the exchequer.

Figaro (Vito Priarte) and Susanna (Lydia Teuscher) star in Glyndebourne's 'Le Nozze di Figaro' (Photo credit: Alastair Muir)
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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.