Save jobs and sell the Hockney? The dilemma laying bare inequality in the arts | Charlotte Higgins

Fighting for survival due to Covid-19, it’s no wonder the Royal Opera House is selling its David Hockney portrait – originally bought with a staff whip-round. So what does Hockney himself think of the sale?

Who knew the Royal Opera House owned a David Hockney? I certainly didn’t. The portrait of David Webster, who ran Covent Garden between 1945 and 1970, could now be the institution’s saviour as Covid-19 brings it towards the brink of collapse; soon it will be sold by Christie’s. The auction house hope it might make as much as £18m. “This was a really tough call,” Alex Beard, the Royal Opera House’s chief executive, told the Observer. “But we have to face the situation we are in and if we can remain viable and get through this, then we can get back to employing people in the future.”

Well, that’s where we seem to be: jobs or assets. In this particular case, surely the shade of any former boss of the Opera House would be rising from the grave to say, “Of course you should sell the damn portrait.” It’s sad, it’s part of Covent Garden’s history, it’s almost certainly displeasing to Hockney himself, but now is very much the rainy day when the portrait can help to safeguard the House’s actual work of opera and ballet, and its role as a major cultural employer.

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