The arts are in crisis: we must act now

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The Independent Online
THE Independent on Sunday today calls on Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, to use next month's Budget to stop the rot in the arts which has already seen orchestras threatened, theatres close and museum attendances fall.

Backed by some of the country's biggest artistic names - among them Sir Peter Hall, Peter Brook, Mike Leigh, Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner - we are campaigning for a change in taxation policy which would permit individuals to make simple tax-free contributions to theatres, orchestras, museums and galleries. That would immediately help plug the gap left by falling government funding for the arts - policies that undermine one of the most vibrant and admired sectors of British cultural and economic life.

There is no mystery about raising money this way; it is how they do it in the United States. Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the Commons' Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said: "Clearly, this is a very much bigger incentive to donors than the present system of tax relief."

Lottery money is financing dramatic improvements in theatres and museums; but at the same time the Treasury's spending cuts make it harder for companies in the performing arts to go about their work.

Only last week, Manchester's Halle Orchestra was forced to sell valuable musical instruments to survive. The Victoria & Albert Museum said entrance charges had reduced attendances by 15 per cent. Two weeks ago, the death knell sounded for the Greenwich Theatre, close to the Millennium Dome - the cost of which would subsidise the nation's entire artistic community for four years.

After years of presiding over falling spending in real terms, the Arts Council was forced to announce a cash cut last month. The threat of admission charges to remaining free museums such as the British Museum has been averted only after a fierce campaign. Arts minister Mark Fisher recently told museum directors that they should "learn from Harvey Nichols".

We believe this Government should learn from the US Internal Revenue Service. Straightforward tax deductions of any sum - from pounds 5 to pounds 5m - would replace a muddled and cumbersome system of tax relief for the arts under charitable covenants and the Gift Aid scheme, which sets a bottom limit for donations of pounds 250. Gordon Brown has already moved to provide concessions for the film industry.

The crisis may well deepen after the year 2001. It is hard to find any Whitehall insiders who will question the growing feeling among arts administrators that in the new century lottery funds that are now dedicated to the arts will be diverted to health and education. This would sink Culture Secretary Chris Smith's plans to bail out the performing arts.

Details of the campaign and how readers can add their weight to the cause are on the front of Section 2.