Arts: Lottery with violence

Yes, it has its faults, but the lottery is without doubt the answer to every cash-strapped arts organisation's prayers. Wrong, says David Benedict. It's a disaster that has distorted funding for a generation
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The Independent Culture
What's this? Good news in the murky waters of lottery allocations? It's true. In one fell swoop, 80 arts organisations took a giant leap forward last week thanks to a very smart application made by the Independent Theatre Council.

The ITC is the management body representing small- and middle-scale performing arts companies, venues and individuals. It ranges from tiny organisations that only their devoted audiences have heard of to international success stories like Adventures in Motion Pictures, Scotland's Communicado and London's Bush Theatre. Now 80 of its neediest members have been given a major technological upgrade.

This lottery award provides ill-funded companies with pounds 4,000 worth of computer equipment including software packages, internet service provision and access to a website providing marketing, ticketing and communications back-up, plus an extra pounds 1,425 worth of training. The difference this will make to the companies is out of all proportion to the size of the award but, sadly, such lateral thinking is the exception rather than the rule.

Without a doubt, the lottery is the biggest disaster ever to befall arts funding in this country. Other than the newly-made millionaires, the only people who would give it an unequivocal thumbs up would be the hundreds of arts consultants who have made a killing out of it. Almost every arts organisation which has had dealings with the lottery has a horror story about some of these "experts". Their skills in systems analysis are irrefutable but their specific knowledge of the relevant artform is often insultingly lacking. Ignorance notwithstanding, most of them charge exorbitant fees, earning as much in a day as their clients will pay their performers in a week, or two, or even three.

It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. In the notoriously cash- strapped arts world, which organisation would be foolish enough to turn down the chance to put in a bid to renovate, refurbish or rebuild the fabric of a theatre, gallery or concert hall? In the long years of standstill funding which ignored inflation, major capital investment in buildings for art was about as likely as the development of a porcine airforce. Suddenly, new money was being poured into "good causes". Administrators rubbed their hands and architects began drawing up plans.

Last week, for the first time in 17 years, Pina Bausch's company came to London. At last, in the shape of the rebuilt Sadlers Wells, we had a dance house big enough for this world-class talent. The new theatre is one of the most prestigious and most necessary of the lottery schemes, yet within months of its opening the building shows signs of wear and much of the detailing looks like what it is: a rush job finished off with too little money. It's a victim of the fiasco of matching funding. The lottery provides only 75 per cent of the money for every scheme. The bidding organisation must raise the rest itself. In the case of Sadler's Wells, tireless fundraisers failed to meet the original target. This is no surprise. Just how many people are there with tens of thousands of pounds to give away who seek no direct return on their investment? And how do they choose between the increasingly desperate pleas from all the arts organisations, all chasing the same money?

The lottery has been catastrophic for several reasons. The most common problem has been the "white elephant" scenario: buildings such as the Cambridge Arts Theatre have gone up, only to collapse artistically as the lottery has failed to provide the funding to run them, or to pay for the art and artists to put in them. The rules which allowed that to happen have changed - to the chagrin of those who failed under the unworkable guidelines - but this crucial division between money for buildings and the work they produce has confused the very people this money was aimed at: the public.

An even more insidious problem has been the lottery's miserable handling of its publicity. Large grants to important London-based schemes were badly timed, with the result that a sceptical media has often taken deserving arts organisations to the cleaners. One effect of this is that money for London has now been capped in favour of a regional programme ignoring the size of the capital - home to a fifth of the country's population - not to mention its international arts role. The Barbican is the latest organisation to fail to win lottery money. Understandably, its director John Tusa wants to know why. One possible reason is that other London venues' needs are deemed more urgent. Lack of London provision means that several venues now face closure on grounds of health and safety. It's all become horribly, dangerously competitive.

Worst of all, the public now mistakenly believes the arts to be swimming in money. When the lottery began, the then arts minister Virginia Bottomley announced in these pages that statutory arts funding would not be affected. Three weeks later, it was cut. Trying to make a case for increased arts funding was never easy. In the wake of the lottery it is now virtually impossible.

Labour's record has provided few reasons to be cheerful. Culture Secretary Chris Smith may have sorted out the Covent Garden fiasco, but there are worrying signs that his department is courting public favour by bowing before the great god "efficiency" and "downsizing" the "bureaucracy" of the Arts Council. It seems the Government is seeking to take direct control of funding in a deeply undemocratic way.

In all this time, there has been virtually no discussion about the politics of arts funding. A few individuals have raised voices in defence of their own organisations, but the wider debate has been notable for its absence. Arts Council leaders should have been the most eloquent advocates, but past and present incumbents have remained silent almost to the point of negligence. Clearly, they believed that their responsibility was to the Government, rather than the nation's art and artists.

In order to ameliorate this mess further assurances should be demanded for the statutory provision of arts funding. The level of lottery matching funding should be lowered - why the value of an arts project should be assessed by its ability to fundraise has never been satisfactorily explained.

A clear national strategy must be built up through far more consultation with local authorities and regional bodies on how lottery money can be spent to improve the infrastructure of arts provision: bringing arts to the people and people to the arts. Current unstrategic thinking allows large-scale organisations with influential board members to win Lottery support at the expense of marginalised, smaller schemes.

The Arts Council's handling of the lottery needs closer examination. The last annual report revealed that including "soft" commitments - those offered but not finally signed and sealed - the council was over-committed to the tune of more than pounds 270m. (It is for this reason that London has been squeezed).

The goalposts are moving yet again next year, but no one knows what the new criteria will be, making it impossible to plan or draft potential submissions. The cost to arts organisations in terms of time, money and labour, has been incalculable with hopes dashed due to circumstances beyond their control. The lottery must come up with a clear plan for London that organisations can work within. It's fashionable to compare the arts with industry. No commercial set-up would countenance working within these constraints.

The lottery story is reminiscent of the fairy tale with the moral: be careful what you wish for... you might get it. Just a few years ago, priceless jewels appeared to be falling from politicians' lips. Yet, like most fairy tales, it didn't all come true in the way that anyone expected. And unless the arts world gets its act together, the ending is going to be far from happy.