The Week in the Arts

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The Independent Online
It was a curious speech by the arts minister, Mark Fisher, to museum directors urging them to learn from Harvey Nichols, Marks & Spencer and Tesco in exploiting retail space, and opening outlets in high streets and at airports. Hackles were raised among the great and the good in the audience at the Museums and Galleries Commission (MGC) conference. Most were astonished at being asked by a Labour minister to ape a luxury Knightsbridge store. "Is this the Diana factor?" muttered one distinguished director. I found an even more perplexed gentleman during the coffee break after Mr Fisher's speech. He told me, shaking his head in consternation: "I don't mind the Harvey Nichols reference. But it's a bit much being asked to emulate Tesco." The gentleman in question is a board member of the National Gallery. His name: Simon Sainsbury.

Meanwhile, research into museum admission policies carried out by the Central Office of Information for the MGC proclaims that "only 4 per cent of those who do not visit museums cite admission charges as a barrier". With the Government about to make a policy statement on charging and national museums, this finding, emphasised in the MGC press release, could well be ammunition for them to embrace charging. But it doesn't take too much reflection to wonder about the importance of such a finding. Surely, the key group of people are the 55 per cent of the public interviewed who do go to museums. Would they be put off by an admission charge? This group was not asked for their views on charging. Apparently such a question to them would have been too loaded. David Barrie, the director of the National Art Collections Fund, which is passionate in its support of free admission, says: "It seems to me that there are two crucial questions that have yet to receive a clear answer. Will charges affect the total number of visitors? And will visitors be deterred from repeat visits?" Precisely. Without those two pieces of information, this much-heralded research falls short.

Examples of catering abuse at arts venues continue to come in, with complaints of allegedly exorbitant prices for interval snacks. But price sensitivity is clearly pitched at different levels across the country. One reader writes to complain of a 90p Cornetto at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but I have to tell him that in London that would be considered cheap. Mrs Gwen Bradley shares my distaste with prices at the Royal Albert Hall in London after she purchased a snack of "two plates of smoked salmon on dry brown bread buns, with a small amount of garnish and a few Tortilla chips". The cost was pounds 12. She wrote to the management to inquire whether a mistake had been made. She received a reply from the caterers Letheby & Christopher confirming that the price was the correct amount and assuring her "it is only by receiving such letters as yours that we can strive to improve the service that we offer". I hope they strive quickly. For that price, I could take the coach to Leeds and enjoy a Cornetto.