Goodbye to all VAT

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I fear I have two pieces of information for the government's ongoing investigation into museum charges that may not be entirely helpful to supporters of free admission such as the Culture Minister, Chris Smith. (His new official title, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, takes up too much newsprint.) The much stated and utterly admirable justification for free admission by the National Gallery director Neil MacGregor is that the pictures belong to the nation, therefore the nation cannot be charged to see them.

But how many of the National Gallery's visitors are actually "of the nation", so to speak. Surprisingly, the Gallery has never until now undertaken any research on what percentage comes from abroad. But I hear that the first research has now been done and the figure is exactly half. It is a statistic that should be made known to the government review on charging.

The second piece of information has also been kept rather quiet. Sir Denis Mahon, the octogenarian benefactor, who has loaned masterpieces to several galleries and promised the same pictures as bequests on his death, has made it a condition that these galleries do not charge admission. Indeed, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool has lost three paintings from his collection to the National Gallery of Ireland because they have introduced charges. But I gather that while Sir Denis has loudly insisted on free admission for galleries exhibiting his paintings, no such stipulation has been written into the terms of his bequest. The National Art Collections Fund, which administers the bequest, would have nowhere to store the paintings for a start. Sources at the Fund are also privately worried that after Sir Denis's death the government will clap an export stop order on the paintings going to Ireland.

Mr Smith might have chosen to tackle a rather more tricky area than he first believed. One thing he can do, though. End the absurd VAT anomaly, by which museums and galleries that charge admission can claim back the VAT on all their expenses, whereas those that allow free admission cannot. Allowing the National Gallery to claim back their VAT would give them an extra pounds 1m a year. A simple remedy, which would neatly avoid grappling with more difficult philosophical issues such as finding out and publicly stating who our museum and gallery visitors actually are.

An etiquette problem for actors: when on a TV chat show to plug a play do you tell a famous interviewer she doesn't know her Endgame from her elbow. Or do you politely nod and drink your tea? Ben Kingsley was the guest on the Richard and Judy show to plug the new production of Waiting for Godot. Judy was chuffed because she had studied Godot for A-level, but didn't understand why Sir Peter Hall's production did not have the characters in dustbins. Mr Kingsley could have pointed out that that was another play; he could have mused on A-level English teaching. But, a scholar of actorly etiquette, he simply poured himself another cup.

Postmodernism has few champions as redoubtable as Professor Simon Frith, professor of English at Strathclyde University and the leading academic specialising in rock music. (He must explain one day why rock and pop come under the English department rather than music, electronics or gender studies.) Anyway, Professor Frith is chairman of the Mercury Music Prize, which has included the Spice Girls on its shortlist. Professor Smith, or Brainy Spice as he may henceforth be called in Glasgow, now says he would readily lecture to students on the girls' significance in the evolution of pop. The music industry trade journal Music Week meanwhile pontificates that giving the Mercury to the Spice Girls would be like giving the Booker to Jilly Cooper. Rubbish, Jilly Cooper would never get on the curriculum at Strathclyde.