Let's not make a farce out of funding

Knee-jerk reactions to lottery grants cannot help to form wise policies for pursuing excellence; Money we lose at gambling is money over which we have forfeited any control
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The Independent Online
For the past few weeks, people in the arts world have been worrying about distribution of the funds from the National Lottery. I have a simple suggestion to make, which is that nothing dramatic should be done to alter the guidelines until the overall situation is much clearer. I mean, until the charities have been receiving their share, and we can see and feel the effect of this important, crucial aspect of the whole project. Until the Millennium Fund projects are settled and well in hand. Until there have been enough grants in the areas of arts, heritage and sport for us to be able to tell what the long-term effects of this new type of funding will be.

At present, as anyone who watched Jeremy Paxman's studio discussion of this subject recently will know, the issue of lottery money is liable to provoke phenomenal bursts of rage. Individual grants (to the Churchills, to Covent Garden, to Eton College) have proved notorious. A trend towards elitism has been espied. The lottery has been seen as a tax on the poor to the benefit of the rich. The lack of money going to charities looks like a scandal. And so forth.

But the lottery is still new, and the terms in which it is to be discussed are oddly ambiguous and unfamiliar. This money looks like pennies from heaven, but it is earmarked for areas of very important public spending. Those who, with seeming wisdom, call it a tax on the poor are very far from convincing me that money spent on gambling can be called a tax.

To whom does the lottery money (the bit of it that goes to good causes) belong? Those who put forward the argument that the people who play the lottery should have the right to decide - by ticking a little box - what it should be spent on, seem to be proposing that the money we lose at gambling still belongs to us. It doesn't. The money we lose at gambling is money over which we have forfeited any control. This is what we learn as we are booted, shirtless, down the casino steps.

Printing lottery tickets with little multiple-choice boxes to allow us to express our preference, week by week, for how the money was to be allocated, would make the funding of capital projects in the arts subject to a weekly plebiscite. But arts policy is highly important and complex. All the plebiscite would be asking, week after week, would be: which is your favourite good cause - sports, arts, heritage or charity? But this is really no basis for complex decisions of policy.

It is generally believed that it was wrong to make the lottery arts money applicable only to capital projects, that the arts world will eventually run out of capital projects, and we could end up, as it were, building theatres for which there will be no funding available, or concert halls in excess of the requirements of our orchestras. Last week there were reports that the Arts Council was thinking of a way of giving money to the theatres to enable them to keep ticket prices down. This money would come in the form of an endowment, and might therefore be deemed to count as a capital project.

There is a lot to be said for endowing our major cultural institutions. The National Gallery has an endowment from the Sainsbury family - pounds 50m or so - and jolly useful it must be. But what should future endowments be for? Why should it be more important to keep seat prices down than fund theatrical projects?

At present, our subsidised theatres are kept very short of cash and very dependent on sponsorship. This means that the kind of long-term project in which a company works together, say, for six months to create something quite extraordinary (such as a Peter Brook production, or one of Ariane Mnouch-kine's spectacular shows) is out of the question in British theatre. The genius of our theatre expresses itself in medium-scale productions put on over short rehearsal periods. But one might well protest against these restrictions. One might well desire another kind of theatrical company, financially endowed so that it could place greater emphasis on "research and development". Low seat prices are no doubt a good thing, but there's no great satisfaction in paying a low seat price to see a low-quality piece of work.

One could wish that the Covent Garden grant had not happened, not because it was undeserved, but because it has made anti-elitism the criterion for current decisions. But anti-elitism is an emotional category, and no guide to policy. The pictures in the National Gallery belong to an elite group, and we would be shocked if the gallery bought anything other than an elite picture. A concert pianist is a member of an elite, and we would be disappointed if he turned out not to be.

I want a state of affairs in which everyone has an opportunity to learn music at school, and therefore an opportunity to join that elite group of professional musicians. I want these musicians, naturally, to have something to do, and therefore I want a reasonable number of opera houses up and down the country, and concert halls, bringing music within reasonable range of the majority of the population. Some of these opera houses (at least one each in Wales, Scotland and England) should be true members of the international elite, attracting the best performers, directors and conductors. If all this musical economy were in place, so that anybody had the opportunity to perform or to hear music, where would the offence be in the existence of an elite? A first-rate opera house would be no more a matter for offence than a first-rate stadium with first-rate athletes performing in it.

Of course, one has to be able to afford to get into an opera house, and affordable seats are normally achieved by a subsidy to the company. The companies fear that, if they receive an endowment grant from lottery funds, it might adversely affect their subsidies. And one can see easily why they should be suspicious. But in the end, as more lottery funds pour in, there will have to be a new look at the whole of policy of subsidising the arts. I strongly hope that this review of policy will not take place in an atmosphere soured by the fact that the charities have not yet done well out of the lottery, or by the suspicion that the whole of funding has been hijacked by the elite.