David Lister: The Week in Arts

Why Andy Burnham should be a bit bolder
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The Independent Online

I have not touched on the issue of ticket prices for a while, even though I think it remains a key factor in encouraging or discouraging access to the arts. But now two things, one national, one local, have made it a live issue again.

Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, has declared himself in favour of free admission to arts events for sections of the population. He says: "I think there is a strong case for it, beginning with under-25s. There isn't a firm agreement about how, when, what cost, and who ... but I am resolved to do something."

Before we all get too excited, especially the under-25s, I should add that Mr Burnham is here backing the McMaster report into excellence in the arts that the Government commissioned, and that report actually recommends one week of free entry to nationally funded theatres and concert halls. So when Mr Burnham does work out how, when, what cost, and who, it will only be for one week of the year. But it's a start.

I would go further. I believe that if theatres – and why not concerts, opera and ballet as well – were the same price as cinemas once a week, then these art forms would be seen as a genuine alternative to a movie for a night out.

The trouble with a special one week of free events is that it becomes something of a gimmick, a one-off, that virtually proclaims itself not to be part of normal cultural life but a special treat for those who can't afford to go normally. And when that week is over, everyone returns to their normal cultural routine.

Mr Burnham is himself realising the virtue of regular cheap or free events in attracting new audiences. He admits that when he was a political adviser to the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith in the 1990s, he was actually against the idea of free admission to national museums and galleries, but has changed his mind.

"When I was a young fresh-faced spin doctor," he says now, "I wasn't sure this was going to be the best thing for the department to focus on, and as an adviser I found it very hard to convince the Treasury. [But] I can't believe the impact the policy of free entry to museums and galleries had. It brought a sense of energy and vibrancy to the whole cultural sector."

And that brings me to the second incident regarding free admission. A new arts centre called The Public in West Bromwich has set prices of £6.95 for adults and £4.95 for children. Some local councillors are complaining that the prices are too high in an area with high unemployment. The Conservative group leader on Sandwell council points out that a family of four would have to pay £20 for one trip to the centre.

The centre's director, Marlene Smith, says: "We have brought together amazing architecture, art ideas and technologies to create an experience for our visitors that is both innovative and fun. At £6.95 per adult and £4.95 for all concessions, this is good value for visitors and taxpayers alike."

She's wrong, and not only because I am always suspicious about prices that end with 95p. Why not be honest and say it's going to cost you a fiver? Unemployed people are not going to pay these prices; teenagers are unlikely to go to the new arts centre rather than the cinema if they have to pay for it.

Mr Burnham must widen his thoughts about admission. Now that he has seen the value in free admission to national museums, where is the logic in charging for local arts centres? He has given his blessing to a week of free admission to the arts. Why not try to attract new audiences the other 51 weeks of the year?

That old Ed Sullivan magic

A highlight of the TV week is the re-run of vintage Ed Sullivan shows on Sky Arts. Sullivan, pictured, had the longest-running variety show in TV history, from 1948 to 1971. The fact that he started in the 1940s and continued until the 1970s means two things – he had on his show all the great rock acts of a defining era, and clearly didn't have a clue what they were on about.

He did, though, notice that Jim Morrison of the Doors refused to change the lyric "Girl, we couldn't get much higher" to "Girl we couldn't get much better" as requested by the network, and he refused to shake Morrison's hand.

What I like best is the way Sullivan always refers to the great stars as "youngsters" or "young people", treating them like precocious performers at a school concert. I watched the other day as he introduced the Mamas and the Papas, and urged the audience to "show your appreciation for these talented young people". It's priceless stuff.

* Liverpool's year as European City of Culture seems to go from strength to strength. But amid the good news there has been a bit of bad news carefully buried. It seems that the National Museums Liverpool has fallen out with its Friends.

Indeed, it's worse than a friendly tiff. The Friends of the museum group – the group of members that raises funds, holds functions and has a special relationship with the venues – have been told never to darken their doorstep again. It seems that the Friends objected to a new Museum of Slavery. There were other aspects of Liverpool's history worth highlighting, the Friends' organisation claimed. Now the NML management has disbanded the organisation, even though it has raised £800,000.

Sir Hugh Casson, who started the country's most famous Friends group at the Royal Academy, used to joke: "Some of my best enemies are Friends." The joke has become a reality in Liverpool.