The Week in Arts: Free for a week? Why not affordable all the time?

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The Independent Online

The government-commissioned McMaster report on "Supporting Excellence in the Arts", which was published this week, contained one line that very much caught my eye. Sir Brian McMaster called for all publicly funded arts organisations to put on free performances for one week each year. The Government immediately welcomed the recommendation.

Regular visitors to the Edinburgh Festival, which was run by Sir Brian McMaster for most of the past decade, will note that there were no weeks of free performances of the lavish operas, concerts and plays that he staged there. But never mind. His interesting idea is still an interesting idea, even if it might have made more of an impact when he was in a position to put it into practice.

The idea is particularly close to my own heart as I campaigned in this paper for some time for cheap tickets at British theatres, and a number of producers tried out with some success my suggestion of charging cinema prices on Monday nights to bring in a new, younger audience.

Sir Brian wants to inaugurate the week of free performances, the same week for all the arts venues as part of one big national jamboree, to end "the notion held by many that the arts are simply not for them."

But that is precisely why I still prefer my idea to Sir Brian's. The thing about free performances, particularly a week of free performances, is that they feel like, and are, a special one-off event. They seem to say, to me at least, "Come and sample the high arts at this nationwide week of special performances for the masses, and then they will return to being for those who can afford them."

That's not the way to nurture a new audience. The way to do that is to have affordable prices all the time, to give out the message that theatre, opera, classical concerts and ballet can be a regular part of one's life, just like going to the cinema. That is why I still believe in the cinema comparison, when it comes to pricing.

Having cinema-level prices on one day every week goes some way to making a potential new audience feel that the so-called high arts are just as easy and economic a choice for a night out as seeing a film. But really we have to go further. Cinema prices have to be available to, say, the under-25s every night. This actually used to be the case when the balcony or upper circle in every theatre was a fiver or so. Those days are gone, and that is an underreported disgrace. At many West End theatres, the cheapest seats are £20 plus. The fuss over high prices tends to be focused on the high cost tickets in the stalls. But it is how the cheap seats have ceased to be cheap that is the real scandal.

The way to bring in the new audience that Sir Brian wants is not to have a national free tickets week, attractive as that sounds. The way to do it is to have a section of every auditorium in the country with prices that are never higher than the local cinema. If this means some of the best seats having slightly higher prices to compensate, then so be it. The arts have to be an integral and affordable part of our lives 52 weeks of the year.

To say to audiences, "You couldn't afford it last week; this week will be free; then next week you can go back to not being able to afford it again" seems to me a bizarre message for the Government to endorse.

From Whitehall with love...

The Secretary of State for Culture, James Purnell, has spent a lot of time this week giving interviews and speaking in favour of the McMaster report and fielding questions about Arts Council cuts. But I wonder if at moments like these Mr Purnell's mind doesn't wander from the serious issues of arts policy to dream of what might have been.

In a piece that he has just written for an arts journal, he recalled how he was once a would-be actor at the National Youth Theatre. But his chance for fame ended when he auditioned for a role in Murder in the Cathedral and was beaten to it by a young colleague called Dan Craig. That actor, now Daniel Craig, went on to be a star, and, of course, is now the screen 007.

There must be times, as in the intricate policy discussions of this week, when the Secretary of State gets misty-eyed and reflects that if he had been a little luckier in that audition, the name might now be James Bond rather than James Purnell.

* Union officials at the Lowry Centre in Salford have branded the centre's chief executive Julia Fawcett a "fat cat", after it was revealed in newly published accounts that she was paid a total of £310,000 in 2006/7. Bectu points out that its members received a below inflation pay rise, and that the venue relies on volunteers to work as ushers.

Apparently the pay package includes a performance-related bonus. I do wonder how one measures performance at an arts centre. Is it the number of visitors? Is it how well the retail outlets perform? Or is it the quality of the shows and exhibitions?

I'd have thought it was the quality of the shows. But then who exactly is the judge of that? And if it is either the quality of the shows or visitor numbers, then shouldn't the heads of the Tate and the British Museum be two of the richest men in the country?

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