What price favouritism?

The Donmar has been saved from closure. But at what cost, asks David Benedict

Five months ago, the Donmar Warehouse's artistic director, Sam Mendes, and his tireless administrative director, Caro Newling, began desperately seeking sponsors. The widely admired off-West End 252-seat theatre in Covent Garden had come to the end of a three-year sponsorship deal and faced closure.

At a press conference on Monday, Mendes announced that, alongside continued project support from Carlton, a three-year sponsorship deal with Mercury Communications had been secured to the tune of pounds 150,000 per year - a sum to be matched by a "one-off" cheque from the Arts Council.

This last piece of information must have raised a few eyebrows. After all, when the Donmar re-opened four years ago, it was as a West End house operating without subsidy. So what is the Arts Council doing rescuing a commercial (albeit non-profit making) operation?

The London Arts Board (LAB), funders of all London's subsidised theatres except the National, the Royal Court and the RSC (all Arts Council clients), recognised the Donmar's need but felt it should be considered in the context of a London-wide policy. The other LAB clients face a further year of standstill funding and, while they welcome the saving of any theatre, many are understandably annoyed that, after years of playing by funders' rules, they are being bypassed in favour of a newsworthy venue which once claimed not to need funding. Why was the LAB ignored?

Sue Rose, an Arts Council spokeswoman, states that "the decision was made on the grounds of artistic quality" and that it was "a clear matter of urgency". Yet when the Lyric Hammersmith nearly closed, no such sum was forthcoming.

No matter what the Arts Council says, the Donmar is now in receipt of public funding, a handout with no strings attached, which other clients would dearly love. It's a dangerous precedent to set. Surely any commercial, producing company with a "quality" track record can now ask for financial support for any good works which look less than profitable?

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