Arts Campaign: All talk and cheap gestures

The Budget helped a few museums, but did not reflect the public's support for the arts
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN THE end the Budget was not particularly arts friendly. Yes, the free museums will remain free. But that gesture - good value for the Government at just pounds 2m a year - leaves a bitter legacy.

It effectively maintains a two-tier structure of national museums. If free admission is right for the Tate, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and British Museum, then why is it not also right for the Victoria and Albert, Imperial War, National Maritime and Natural History museums - institutions that introduced charging rather than run up big deficits?

Alan Borg, the director of the V&A, was keeping his counsel last week, but he is on record as saying he would consider abolishing charging at his own museum and demanding more government money if the British Museum were to be given what he termed "a hand-out". This has happened: museums have been divided, and we wait to see what Dr Borg will do.

Certainly the Budget gesture has attracted criticism to offset the pleasure of the directors of the Tate and the National Gallery. David Barrie, head of the National Arts Collection Fund whose statistical compilations of visitor-number decline at charging institutions was a forceful campaigning weapon, is far from impressed by the Budget measure, describing it as "frankly, more like a stop-gap than a long-term solution".

Yet in the final days of opposition last spring, Tony Blair gave a clear hint that New Labour would guarantee free admission. He said in a speech at the Mansion House: "We are concerned about the introduction of admission charges in national museums. The evidence suggests that high charges can lead to a big decline in attendance."

Mark Fisher, minister for the arts, followed his leader. He said in the Commons a month after the election: "We do not want anyone to be charged entry to national museums and galleries."

Had museum directors also studied Mr Blair's commitment to keeping to the Conservative spending plans for two years, they might have been more measured in their delight.

Sure enough, by late autumn there were signs that the Treasury was unconvinced. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, began to say that the issue was a difficult one "when the public finances are having to be so carefully husbanded". It got worse. In November Mr Fisher told an incredulous meeting of museum directors that ending charging would be too expensive and they "should learn from Harvey Nichols" how to raise money and earn more "per visitor per square metre".

The Independent and others stepped up a campaign, supported by the likes of David Hockney and Bridget Riley, for free admissions, and the extent of support for it began to impress Messrs Blair and Brown. Mr Fisher told the pre-Budget meeting at the Royal Academy, organised by the Independent on Sunday and Independent, that "the campaign by the two papers before Christmas on free admission to museums had been very helpful".

We were not the only ones. Gordon Brown, who at university was a campaigner for free admission, was increasingly "on side". Certainly any discussions he had with his girlfriend Sarah Macaulay would have strengthened this view. Part of her portfolio is doing PR for the National Gallery, and friends say she is passionate about free admission.

Then for one glorious moment it appeared that all the lobbying would pay off and a multimillion-pound sum would be guaranteed in the Budget to make every national museum free. This newspaper last week had the scoop that free admission would be in the Budget, but, misinterpreting the opaque whisper that is a Budget leak, assumed it would encompass all national museums. We provoked two days of high expectations - expectations that we continue to hope the Treasury will meet one day.

Last, and far from least, what of the Independent on Sunday and Independent campaign for tax relief on contributions that individuals make to the arts. In short, we didn't win it, not this time at least, though there is talk that next year's Budget could bring this much-needed move. The changes announced this week on charitable giving overseas seem to indicate an acceptance in principle of what we are seeking.

But whatever we may or may not have won this week, nothing can detract from the massive support that the Save the Arts campaign attracted, both from arts practitioners and readers from every walk of life. Your letters have poured in, and we are immensely grateful for that, as we are to readers such as Katharine Watson, the mother of the actress Emily Watson, who collected over 1,000 names on petitions supporting the campaign.

The Treasury cannot ignore indefinitely the overwhelming desire of people in this country to see the arts relieved of perpetual financial crisis.

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