Lottery cash may fund new plays

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Plans to fund new operas, plays, paintings and ballets with money from the National Lottery are being considered by Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Such changes, which would not need legislation, could have the bizarre result of publicly funded companies commissioning wealthy playwrights such as Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard out of lottery takings, as well as helping struggling artists in need of a lifeline.

They would also benefit dance and drama students on discretionary grants who have been hit hard by local authority cuts in recent years.

While these alterations to the lottery might find favour in the arts world they would risk charges of elitism elsewhere, and questions as to why painters and playwrights should not take their chances in the marketplace with everyone else. Students who are not on art courses will also want a share of lottery money to help boost their grants.

The Arts Council chairman, Lord Gowrie, is determined to press Mrs Bottomley for more help for the arts from the lottery. At present lottery funds are intended mainly for capital projects such as new buildings. He will urge that this be extended to new work such as plays and operas on the grounds that these are just as much new creations as buildings.

He will also argue that there is little point in giving lottery money to new buildings when the council, after a cash cut of pounds 5m, cannot afford to fund the work going on inside them.

Arts Council officials are currently having discussions with civil servants from the Department of National Heritage on extending the lottery .

An Arts Council insider said that both sides were united in wanting to extend the scope of the lottery to commission new work. The source confirmed that this could indeed mean lottery money being used to commission new work from established writers such as Pinter and Stoppard, but the main thrust would be towards companies commissioning new, young artists.

Mrs Bottomley was disappointed with Treasury cuts to the arts and last week publicly emphasised "the need to invest in people".

Giving bursaries to dance and drama students is being seen as one way of investing in people and the National Heritage Secretary has also said that the lottery needs to help the young.