The Royal Opera House is to sell a David Hockney portrait of its former boss in a bid to raise money to plug a shortfall caused by the pandemic.
The painting of Sir David Webster will be auctioned at Christie’s this month and is expected to fetch up to £18m.
Current chief executive Alex Beard said it was “tough call” to sell the picture, but there was no alternative if the organisation was to survive.
“We have to face the situation we are in… and get through this,” he said.
The London venue, home of international opera and the Royal Ballet, is the UK’s biggest arts employer.
It says it has lost £3 in every £5 of its income since the national lockdown forced it to close its doors in March.
The sale of the Hockney portrait is part of a four-pronged plan to help the venue balance the books. There will also be significant redundancies and a fundraising appeal for public donations.
In addition, the opera house has applied for a loan to the government’s culture recovery fund.
“We knew we had to look at any assets we had,” said Mr Beard. “And there is only really one of any note that stands out and that is this portrait.”
“If we can remain viable and get through this, then we can get back to employing people in the future.”
Sir David Webster ran the Royal Opera House between 1945 and 1970 and played a key role in the establishment of the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies at Covent Garden.
Hockney was commissioned to paint his portrait – which in recent years hung in the Covent Garden venue – after he stepped down in the 1970s.
It depicts Sir David sitting in profile, in front of a glass-topped coffee table and a vase of pink tulips.
According to the Christie’s catalogue, the picture was “the first of a rare handful of commissions completed by Hockney: he would not accept another until three decades later, when he painted Sir George and Lady Mary Christie of Glyndebourne for the National Portrait Gallery”.
Mr Beard said the artist had been notified of the impending sale: “We have a good relationship, but he does not much like it when any of his work is auctioned,” he told the Observer.
The Royal Opera House reopened in June with a concert which was broadcast on TV, radio and online – but without a live audience.
At the time, Mr Beard said the venue, in common with many theatres and arts venues, was facing “unprecedented financial stress”. Mr Beard was understood to have taken “a significant reduction” in pay, while music director Sir Antonio Pappano waived his salary during lockdown.
Last week, the Royal Opera House announced a limited return of public performances of ballet and opera, in front of a reduced audience, beginning later this month.
Among the productions it is hoping to stage is The Nutcracker, a traditional part of its Christmas programme since 1984.