The independence of Opera Holland Park

With the help of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London’s Investec Opera Holland Park is finally going it alone. General director Michael Volpe on making the leap to independence

Opera Holland Park (OHP) emerged as a concept in 1996 as a way to produce opera as part of the then ‘Holland Park Theatre season’, which also featured theatre, ballet and contemporary dance. By the 2000 season OHP, which had (and still retains) the principle of developing new talent at its heart, was producing the entire programme as the appetite for opera grew, rapidly building a reputation for exposing Londoners to rarities from the late-Italian canon.

The idea that Opera Holland Park should separate from our principal funder, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, had been floating around for several years before we finally achieved the transition on 1 October this year. And the timing is probably about as good as it could ever be.

The Royal Borough has nurtured and supported the company since it began and one might imagine we would be keen to remain under its protective wing? Well in many respects, we do still retain a very close relationship with the council but we also felt the need to strike out on our own.

Now that we are an independent charity, benefit-ting from a capable and influential board, we are less restricted by nature of council finances. We also enjoy the freedom to make the sorts of decisions councils naturally find difficult, or take too long to make.

Our previous structure was quite complicated. OHP was part of a very large business group and as such, we had four further layers of management, the political body of the council and then a cabinet fur-ther up the chain with whom we needed to consult. Furthermore, that collective hierarchy had several critical but nevertheless totally unrelated imperatives to consider. It also had the cost of OHP, a sum of around £450,000 (€615,000), sitting in its revenue budgets every yea – at a time when the pressures on England’s regional council finances are at their greatest in living memory.

Consequently, the idea of independence became very appealing solution. The council could use its reserves to underpin the company’s future whilst at the same time making savings on its revenue budg-ets. The independence would also provide the entrepreneurial freedom an arts charity needs to function successfully. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea provided OHP with one-off grant of £5m. The money will provide security for our first few years as we seek to generate our own funds – one of the primary challenges that now face OHP.

The festival has always generated most of its income from ticket sales but also has a very healthy Friends membership scheme and brilliant sponsors in specialist banking and asset management firm Investec. One of the drawbacks of being part of a council has always been the psychological bar that prevents potential large-scale donors stepping for-ward.

A typical arts donor wants to ensure that their money is helping to improve and develop the recipient’s artistic output, rather than (as they see it) underwriting the council’s static subsidy. A sense of ownership is critical and since announcing our inde-pendence back in the summer, we will, by the end of the month have generated close to a further £1m for our new Founders Fund. Our status as an arts charity also means that we can now benefit from significant Gift Aid, the cultural exemption and the new Theatre Tax Relief.

Understandably, people within the industry, and our patrons, will wonder how we might change as a festival, but a significant core principle of our strategy is that we don’t make radical changes to what OHP’s core activities. That means, we hope, that people shouldn’t really notice a difference other than improve-ments in the way we work with them, as well as qualitative growth in the work on stage. Further, we have enshrined our principles of accessibility into our legal agreements with the council which protects the company in the future from a radical change of pur-pose when the current management and board have moved on. We will also be able to expand our widely respected Inspire community projects.There are risks among all this positivity, primarily connected with our fundraising plans, but that will be somewhat reduced, we believe, by our strategies for risk mitigation in other areas: not changing the com-pany ethos, keeping our lean production methods and guarding against hubris and excess. It is important that we do this now from a position of strength, rather than one of crisis, which is often the case in council hive offs.

I tend to the view that the model we have created at OHP (and the one-off grant that we secured) as something that could benefit many mid-scale arts organisations. The capital renders the company secure (and I accept it is very dependent on a strong board and firm financial scrutiny) and enables it to avoid the triannual rounds of funding applications that plague arts companies. It enables the company to demonstrate financial health and to attract further investment and support. Insecure finances and hand-to-mouth operating tends, as we know, to worry trusts, foundations, sponsors and donors.

If you are in an arts organisation in a similar position, have a strong product with a well-developed audience and seek more independence from your main funder, it is crucial that you demonstrate a clear path ahead, recruit a strong and able board and identify the sources of a plural funding strategy. Yes, it is a potentially scary prospect to consider replacing annual fixed funding with a one-off capital injection but our view is that in the medium-term economic climate, a full-hearted adventure with the freedom to express your creativity and energise your supporters is better than atrophy – or worse, death by a thousand cuts.

Michael Volpe Volpe is the author of Noisy at the wrong times (Two Roads/Hodder) and general director at the UK-based festival Investec Opera Holland Park