Cheap seats, rich people's arts

Lottery cash should fund creative projects, not further subsidise the elite, argues Robert Maycock
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The Independent Online
The cheap-ticket bandwagon is rolling again. This latest vehicle for disposing of the National Lottery's embarrassing riches has been sighted, according to yesterday's newspaper report, strictly under wraps but bearing the unmistakable livery of the Arts Council. "The idea of lottery money is to make the arts more accessible," said the source, "and one way is to make sure ticket prices are within the reach of the mass of population."

So that's that, then - all we have to do is keep on filling in that lottery form and before long we'll be able to buy dirt-cheap tickets so we can go and see our favourite operas and plays twice as often.

Before the wagon starts to run completely wild along the broad highway of missed opportunities, we need to halt it with some pointed questions. What makes people rush to a state-of-the-art musical, or a star rock concert? It isn't the cheap tickets, clearly. Why do so many dance the night away in clubs? Not to save money. So where is the logic behind the argument that suggests that "the mass of the population" can be reached with art and music just by cutting the prices?

Not all supporters of the cheap-ticket bandwagon are the same, of course. Some are going to the opera, thank you very much, but they'd love to go a bit more. Others already go as often as they want, and so do all their friends, and some of the friends run the show anyway. With the extra subsidy they'll be able to save on tickets, so they can maybe have a little flutter on the stock market as well.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation spelt it out when it reported that lottery grants were likely to be benefiting the richest communities more than the poorest. Most of the public have seen it, too. If Jeremy Paxman's studio audience is even slightly representative, they would rather the money went on hospitals, if the alternative is the Royal Opera House, and they treat "we're-open-to-you-all" defences with unconcealed derision. Even people working in the arts feel the same way.

In fact, the coming of the lottery millions is a truly fantastic chance to enfranchise, develop and sustain the art enjoyed by everybody in this country. Yet the chance is about to be blown by the same narrow, exclusive attitude that has made most people believe that art of any sort isn't for them.

"The Arts", we read constantly, are opera and ballet, flagship theatres and orchestras and galleries - the old pattern of activities that fed the start of the publicly funded system after the Second World War. The guardians and advocates of these kinds of arts are the same people who, in older times, would have been missionaries: zealous, idealistic, and totally sure that they know what is good for you. The rest of us are supposed to receive, and offer prayers of supplication and thanks.

In practice, what we do is rather different. We go to the cinema, and watch videos. We pack out the Theatre Royal, Stratford East and the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow. We read books and check out the Internet. Somewhere in the day most of us dip in to that enormous, burgeoning field that we think of as contemporary music: which is not usually going to be the latest premiere at the Proms.

Most of all, we expect our children to come back from school with a vital sense of what the human creative spirit is about. During the week they will, we hope, have played an instrument or sung a song. They will have drawn pictures and learnt about paintings. They will have had the chance to join with other children in making their own music and exploring other people's, acting in plays and dreaming up dramas.

All of this, and much more, is surely what the Lottery is for. We should all have a stake in it. But it isn't quite working out that way. For the first few months, the distributors of largesse were subtle, making sure that a good scattering of "minority" or "community" activities took some of the grants. But it hasn't taken long to learn that these were just the hors d'oeuvre. The really big grants have gone to the really big organisations, thereby guaranteeing that those on the margins stay there.

Take the case of what are called "minority cultures". These, being small groups in the population, have small sums of arts money channelled into the areas where they live - never mind that "their" arts and culture might have a vast audience among the rest of the population. Where are the pounds 55m grants for housing the exciting new developments in African theatre, or the music of many nations that is flocking into Britain, and that millions would go to experience if only they could get near somewhere it is going on? The Arts Council would no doubt dismiss this by reference to a lack of applications. But it looks more like a lack of respect, not to mention creative thinking.

The Arts Council has decided it can subsidise ticket prices by using a Lottery loophole: "endowment funds". Such a fund would give an organisation a supply of cash gained from the interest earned by the fund. Crucially, this allows the Arts Council to get around the current restriction that it can only give grants for capital projects.

If this loophole really does exist, it could unlock a whole world of potential, far beyond holding down ticket prices. All those small, diverse, under-resourced organisations; all those poets and painters, saxophonists and sitar players, teachers and students - what they need is a range of endowed funds that will provide according to their needs, and keep them alive year after year without fretting constantly about the coming year's budget. Within a few years, huge and unforeseen arts projects could flower for everybody.

Let the cut-price bandwagon roll, however, and the only new people to benefit will be the handful who can push their way through the real social barriers, the perceptions of elitism and the patronising missionaries. We can carry on with this overlay of "high" cultivation, the uninvited gift of the rich to the poor; or we can choose instead to feed the growth of an organic British culture which draws on the diverse creative talents of all its people.