Leading Article: An artless response

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UNIVERSAL free admission to the national galleries and museums was one of the few absolute commitments to the arts this Government made. Now it is backing down. It hasn't got the money. More important, it hasn't got the will. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, is a good man with instincts many in the arts community applaud. But the signs are that he is not going to win the battle with his colleagues for the cash required to fulfil the pledge.

The seemingly simple egalitarian call for universal free admission from 2001 has come to look like an albatross round Mr Smith's neck. Yet the principle was, and remains, a fine one. The campaign for "free admission for all" was based on the notion that the national collections of art and treasures are exactly that: national collections, which should be available for all the nation. And while free admission for children and pensioners is a good first step, in these days when life-long learning and access are the buzz words, 20- to 50-somethings should not be excluded.

There are complications, not least VAT. Insanely, museums with free admission lose not only income from fees but also the business benefit of being allowed to reclaim the VAT on the costs of running, restoring or extending their institution. This was one of the reasons why some museum trustees were less than happy at having the free-admission principle imposed upon them. But tax issues are not insurmountable. The finest tax brains can and should be put to the task. Far bigger problems - the Dome, for example - have been tackled with brainpower and cash. The Government should apply both and honour its commitment.

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