Lottery cash for arts 'not elitist'

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Jeremy Isaacs, the director-general of the beleaguered Royal Opera House, came under further fire last night at the Oxford Union, where the National Lottery was attacked for elitism by critics led by Raymond Gubbay, the impresario.

The most colourful attack against the distribution of lottery grants, including pounds 78m for the redevelopment of the Royal Opera, in London, was made by Floella Benjamin, the former presenter of Playschool.

Mr Isaacs reddened as Miss Benjamin claimed the arts had been hijacked by "arty farties". "It's like having a private party and asking the neighbours to pay for it without inviting them," Ms Benjamin said.

Ms Benjamin suggested that sculptures made out of toilet rolls on Playschool, which she described as an art form for the masses, should be exhibited at the Tate Gallery. Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council who was defending Mr Isaacs, retorted: "They already have."

But the most convincing defence in favour of lottery grants to great arts institutions was made by Deborah Bull, principal ballerina for the Royal Ballet. She accused the critics of distribution of lottery money of patronising the public.

"I was the fourth daughter of a travelling salesman in working-class Derby, my parents had never seen a ballet before they saw me dancing one," she said. "We're demeaning people by telling them they cannot be touched by great art."

She was supported by Lord Gowrie, who said opera was not elitist. The popularity of artists such as Pavarotti, he said, matched that of Mick Jagger.

Despite the recent attacks against him, Mr Isaacs was ebullient when his side won the debate last night by 122 votes to 47. He compared Britain's public spending on the arts to France, which he declared the cultural capital of Europe.

"We're never going to get quite up there, but we can make sure the rain doesn't come through the Royal Opera House roof as it does today," Mr Isaacs said.