Gowrie defends theatre grants

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Arts Reporter

The Earl of Gowrie, the chairman of the Arts Council, was thrown on the defensive yesterday after a pounds 30m lottery award to Sadler's Wells theatre in London reignited criticism that lottery money was funding the entertainment of "toffs".

The award to Sadler's Wells, one of London's most adventurous dance theatres, was made in the sixth round of lottery grants from the Arts Council, which totalled just under pounds 51m.

Other grants included the delayed pounds 12.4m award to Shakespeare's Globe theatre to complete the main open-air auditorium; pounds 750,000 to Edenwood Productions to film A Midsummer Night's Dream under the direction of Adrian Noble; and pounds 1m to Picture Palace Films toward the cost of adapting William Golding's novel The Spire.

The pounds 30m grant to Sadler's Wells - the largest since the Royal Opera House won pounds 55m in July - will pay for the demolition of the theatre's flawed 1930s building, which is unlisted, and the construction of a hi- tech "theatre of the future" on the same Islington site.

But the size of the grant has weighted the balance of arts lottery funding even more heavily in London's favour. Since the Arts Council began its handouts in March it has spent pounds 179m, 69.8 per cent of which has gone to the capital. Lord Gowrie acknowledged that the balance would look "rather damning" to anyone outside the capital, but said the pattern would change as more applications came through. He added that a number of "inevitable factors" had caused the early disproportionate spend - including the size of the country, which meant that the biggest cultural institutions were in London, and the fact that big organisations had the staff to process bids fast.

In rejecting the criticism that the award to Sadler's Wells, which boasts Tony Blair's wife Cherie as an honorary adviser, was another example of funding "art for toffs", Lord Gowrie said: "We are not sitting in a tour d'ivoire. We are responding to real bids from real people... It's untrue to say that all rich people like opera, or the upper classes don't like reggae."

His comments were backed by Ian Albery, chief executive of Sadler's Wells, who said that the average price for a seat at the theatre was pounds 10.70. He added: "The key words which inform everything we do are that access must be at prices that artisans and labourers can afford."

The work on the 1,500-seat main theatre and the studio theatre is due to start next autumn - if the theatre can raise almost pounds 9m by then in partnership funding - and will be completed in two years.

Lord Gowrie also announced yesterday that the Arts Council was setting up a "trouble-shooting department" to oversee the way lottery money is spent on capital projects. He then surprised observers by announcing that he would be prepared to give lottery funds to all art forms - including reggae bands. The former Minister for the Arts explained: "I look upon culture as existing across a very, very wide swathe."

But Lord Gowrie quashed speculation that it was dancing to reggae music which had caused his accident at the weekend, in which he cracked two ribs. That had been incurred by getting out of the bath too quickly.

n Virginia Bottomley, the National Heritage Secretary, has given a clear hint that the National Heritage Memorial Fund is reconsidering its rejection of the Neptune Hall scheme in Greenwich for a grant from lottery funds, following the intervention of Prince Philip, as reported yesterday in the Independent.

Mrs Bottomley said on BBC radio she expected the review to have "a positive" outcome.

Letters, page 18