The pledge by Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to allow free access for all by 2001 has been abandoned, apparently on financial grounds.
Arts insiders fear the retreat will renew pressure on Britain's flagship institutions such as the British Museum to introduce admission fees. "It is difficult for the non-chargers to resist pressures to charge if the Government isn't helping to fulfil its own policy. The charging culture remains," one said.
Chris Smith's original promise provided free access for children from April this year, for pensioners from next spring and for everyone from the year after that. But sources within the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have confirmed that, although agreement was reached on pensioners and children, extending the policy further was "too complicated".
Mr Smith extracted around pounds 100m extra from the Treasury to help the museums and galleries over three years. A sum of pounds 30m was put aside for 2001, but several demands are being made on that cash. These include extra support for the Royal Armouries in Leeds, which has serious financial problems, and for the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art, which is due to open at Bankside in London in May.
In addition, some museum trustees have opposed universal free admission because of the financial impact. The extra cash for museums was supposed to compensate for the loss of admission charge revenue.
Further problems have been caused because institutions that do not charge at present would face a double blow: under British tax law, they would lose the right to reclaim VAT on running costs and capital projects, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum's planned Spiral extension.
David Barrie, director of the National Art Collections Fund (NACF) which campaigned for free admission, said the Government should come clean if universal access was not going to be possible. But if it did, he said he would be very disappointed. "The NACF passionately believes that the great national collections serve the whole population and preserving the principle of free admission is terrifically important."
The pledge applied to national institutions, such as the British Museum, where charges had been threatened, the National Gallery and the Natural History Museum, which are directly funded by the DCMS. Thousands of museums and galleries in the regions face financial crisis, but most of them are under local authority control.
Chris Smith has proclaimed free admission for children an enormous success with a 22 per cent increase in visits. But in a speech last month, he pulled back from the universal free admission commitment saying only "still wider access provision will be made" in 2001.
Some arts organisations are angry that responsibility for the policy is being thrown back to trustees. "With some exceptions, most of them want free admission but they need the Government to make it possible financially," one insider said.
Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, said his trustees had always supported the principle of free admission and wanted to see it extended to the Bankside gallery. "I think it was a fairly clear commitment from an incoming government that they wanted to see universal free admission and, in particular, from this secretary of state."
A DCMS spokesman said the intention remained but it was too early to say whether there would be some charges. Discussions were under way. "Some of the museums and galleries won't want free admission. We can't compel them," he said.
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