MY GENERATION and my children's have been nourished by government benevolence towards the arts. When I used to go to Stratford-on-Avon in the early Sixties, the Royal Shakespeare Company, driven by Sir Peter Hall and financed by the first big state subsidy to the theatre, was creating a new tradition of performing Shakespeare. We absorbed our medieval history through his plays about the Wars of the Roses (the Earl of Warwick will forever be Brewster Mason).

Without subsidy, there would have been no National Theatre. And the championship contest between these two great companies gave us Laurence Olivier's Othello to challenge Paul Scofield's Lear. Harold Pinter was set against Peter Shaffer. As part of that audience, it was bliss to be alive.

In the Seventies, subsidy created the English National Opera, where I saw my first full cycle of Richard Wagner's Ring. I learned to love Verdi and Mozart at Covent Garden, in the days before I felt like framing the ticket stubs for two seats in the stalls because they cost about the same as a nice water colour.

Those were my tastes; for others there was the Royal Ballet with Fonteyn and Nureyev. In the orchestral scene, the range of choice was astonishing. The provincial repertory theatres were in great shape. Opera companies sprang up in Cardiff, Glasgow and Leeds. And no one had then contemplated the idea of charging admission to galleries and museums. Subsidies encouraged these and sustained them.

Benevolence now comes courtesy of the lottery. Hundreds of millions of pounds are being spent building and improving theatres, concert halls, museums and arts galleries. That is the good news; the bad news is that the Government will not provide big enough subsidies to run these spanking new buildings properly. Some may be destined to become grim monuments to an age of bizarre decision-taking.

Theatres, concert halls, galleries and museums are an indispensable part of our education when we are young, and they bind us together as an audience as we grow older, creating communities of people with shared values. Yet New Labour now seems to be set on slowly dismantling the system of subsidies which have underpinned one of the most creative periods in British history.

Of the examples I mentioned above, only the National Theatre is healthy. The RSC is on the brink of a severe financial crisis. The ENO is threatened with summary ejection from the Coliseum. The spirit of the opera and ballet companies at Covent Garden seems to have broken. The provincial repertory system can no longer afford to play Shakespeare. In each case, the principal cause of the trouble is that government subsidies have grown smaller year by year. And the same story can be told throughout the nation. This year, for the first time, the actual sums are smaller, not just their real value.

Now is the time for a dramatic intervention to stop the rot. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is determined to control public spending. He sees no reason why the arts should be exempted from the general round of cuts. Opposition to this view is weakened by the growing feeling that the arts are for toffs, who don't deserve to be funded by the taxpayers.

The Chancellor should ignore the Philistines, and help the arts to help themselves. At a stroke, he can make it easy for individuals to help close the financial gap, and contribute to the arts. It is a matter of

granting no-strings tax relief on the money which we each choose to donate to the theatres, orchestras, museums or galleries that we love - from a fiver to pounds 5,000.

This would not end the crisis, but it would involve the audience in getting to grips with it. As we show below, this is not difficult. They do it in the United States. Do it for us, Chancellor. And do it in your Budget on 17 March.


Harriet Walter and Sir Peter Hall

Alan Ayckbourn, playwright

Fiona Shaw, actress

Mike Leigh, film director

Harriet Walter, actress

Adrian Noble, artistic director, the RSC

Duncan Weldon, producer

Peter Brook, director

Pam Gems, playwright

Nicolas Kent, artistic director, the Tricycle Theatre

Stephen Daldry, artistic director, the Royal Court Theatre

Max Stafford-Clark, head of Out of Joint theatre co

Alan Bleasdale, playwright

Patrick Marber, playwright

Sir Peter Hall, director

Bill Paterson, actor

Deborah Bull, ballet dancer

Andreas Whittam Smith, president of the British Board of Film Classification

Deborah Warner, director

Phyllida Lloyd, director

Sally Green, producer

Simon Callow, actor