Mellor uneasy at opera prices and arts elitism

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The Independent Online
DAVID MELLOR, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, yesterday signalled his intention to tackle elitism in the arts and increase access. It was, he said, fundamental to his vision of the arts, just as his new department was essential to John Major's vision of society.

He said he could not understand why it was necessary to dress up to go to concerts and, in a sideswipe at the Royal Opera house added that he was 'uneasy' about pounds 125 tickets.

Mr Mellor was speaking before an open audience in Edinburgh at a conference organised by the Independent and the Traverse Theatre. It was the first time he had taken questions from the public, not just since his personal troubles in the summer, but since the general election.

On the question of elitism, Mr Mellor referred to Covent Garden and said: 'I personally am uneasy about seat prices at that level. I have never thought that to have an opera house you have to have those prices. I have sat at the Royal Opera House when they were charging pounds 180 to see Mr Domingo, apparently without much familiarity with the production he was appearing in.

'Some people in the arts erect a barrier by creating an unnecessary mystique. Why do you have to dress up to go to a concert? Why can't you just drop in? You don't erect barriers to the development of your own mind.'

Mr Mellor praised the National Theatre with seat prices from pounds 8 to pounds 16 which managed with a lower grant than other national arts institutions to 'fill the theatre with a genuinely classless audience'.

Andreas Whittam Smith, editor of the Independent, who was chairing the conference, welcomed Mr Mellor's appointment, saying the new department would ensure the arts were discussed at Cabinet level and would have a committed Secretary of State. However, he questioned the scope for funding the department

effectively.

Mr Mellor said that the national lottery, providing money for the arts, sport and charities, would come on stream in 1994 with a Bill going before Parliament by Christmas. But he added: 'I hope people will argue for the lottery because it is an idea whose time has come. It shouldn't be a lottery that apologises for itself.'

He was challenged about the crisis in dance and drama schools, with many councils cutting back on discretionary grants for students. It was pointed out that grants for dance and drama schools remained discretionary even though grants for arts and music colleges were mandatory.

Mr Mellor said he was looking at this with colleagues from the Department of Education, being 'unhappy at the arbitrary division between what is mandatory and what is discretionary'. He was also unhappy, he said, that primary and secondary schools left by government to manage their own budgets were cutting back on school visits to theatres.

But he was less encouraging to Scots in the audience calling for a Scottish National Theatre. He said this was a debate which had to be determined in Scotland before he would consider interfering.

Mr Mellor concluded the session by saying that in the arts 'we are going through a relatively golden age. So many of the people currently celebrated in modern art are British.' But he disagreed that he should have called his department the Ministry of Culture, saying: 'If we had called it that, we would appear to be reinventing Eastern Europe.'

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