Lottery cash plans divide the art world

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Plans to use National Lottery money to keep seat prices down at theatres and opera houses could lead to infighting and resentment in the arts.

The plan by the Arts Council chairman, Lord Gowrie, revealed in the Independent yesterday, could see lottery money subsidising ticket prices as early as next year, if the Department of National Heritage agrees.

But reaction yesterday indicated that Lord Gowrie will not find arts organisations united behind him when he pursues the initiative.

Jennifer Edwards, director of the National Campaign for the Arts, an independent pressure group, said: "If we start handing out lottery grants to bring down prices, would we be rewarding institutions like the Royal Opera House which had kept prices high, while places like the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, had kept its ticket prices down and suffered cutbacks in other areas?"

At the National Theatre, where the cheapest ticket booked in advance for an evening performance is pounds 10.50, there was a cautious welcome for the proposal. The executive director, Genista McIntosh, said the plan was all well and good provided it did not affect the normal annual grant that arts organisations received. She feared that if lottery money went towards keeping ticket prices down, the Treasury might reduce annual funding.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which plays in halls all over the country, with tickets ranging from pounds 5 to pounds 27, welcomed the plan vigorously, but was unhappy at the thought that the Royal Opera House might benefit.

Ewen Balfour, the RPO spokesman, said: "We are committed to accessibility and we would be delighted to get help from the lottery to keep prices down. But if this means that places like the Royal Opera House and English National Opera in effect get double subsidy, that will be even more hurtful for people like us, who do not get lottery money."

The Arts Council has been desperately keen to show that it is distributing lottery money to causes with mass appeal. It was stung by criticism of funding elitist projects after it (and not the National Heritage Memorial Fund, as stated in the Independent yesterday) gave pounds 55m of lottery money to the Royal Opera House redevelopment.

Under present legislation, lottery money for the arts can go only to capital projects - new buildings or redevelopments - but Lord Gowrie is understood to see scope in exploiting a loophole in the legislation which would allow the council to give money to institutions to set up endowment funds. These could be used to cut ticket prices.