A story that keeps on giving

It’s hard to believe, a quarter of a century on when we’ve settled into a cultural landscape that was been transformed by the National Lottery, what an apparently shambolic start it had. The brand new first chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Lord Rothschild, had lunch with a group of arts correspondents and was asked what HLF was going to do. “Funny” he said “I came here to ask you that”.

But it’s true, and the whole story is told by someone who was at the heart of it all, Prue Skene, imbued in the arts from toddlerdom, who joined the Arts Council in 1992, two years before the lottery was launched, and she was the first chair of ACE’s arts lottery panel.
Her book, Capital Gains; How the National Lottery transformed England’s arts, has just been published and is more than a memoir because Skene has been, and still is, one of the best-connected individuals in the cultural network who uses all her contacts to lay out her story.

The Arts Council was going through one of its periodic melt-downs, its spending behaviour under deep scrutiny while it was obliged to consider which of London’s four symphony orchestras should be sacrificed to oblige government bean counters, and the last thing it needed was to work out how to allocate new gambling profits “for the public good”.

No-one knew that arts lottery grants were going to transform whole towns and cities – Gateshead, Walsall, Bristol – and the political jitters there were over the whole thing made managing it almost impossible. What was the moral position on using gambling proceeds to pay for the stuff we should have from our tax? How can we be sure the lottery isn’t being used to let the Treasury off the hook? Once the lottery has built the lovely new opera house/theatre/museum/concert hall, who will pay for its maintenance and revenue funding? And all this was going on under the fascinated and professionally sceptical gaze of the national press, especially curious about the funding of films – are the right people making the decisions? – like Stephen Fry’s Wilde.
Aware that large projects such as the Royal Opera House were seen to be grabbing the money ACE tried, in those early days, to be democratic in trying to get some of this bonanza to the little people, with something called A4E Express. This was a scheme for lottery grants of under £5,000 going to those who had never had anything from the arts funding system before. The budget was £4m and when the 4,450 applicants had been whittled down to 2,700 the bill came to almost £9m; the second year’s was £15.4m; there wasn’t a third year.
There was high choler with some of the bigger projects too: Richard Rogers’s fury at the turning down of Zaha Hadid’s plans for the Cardiff Bay Opera House; the Royal Opera House threatening to sue the Arts Council if anything uncomplimentary was said about the management crisis it was in amid its vast lottery-funded development; the £80m Bristol concert hall proposal in which one bit of ACE seemed to be promising the cash for it while another was deploring the bid’s impossible inadequacies.
It’s all here. Skene chaired her panel until 2000 but, as a trustee of a clutch of major subsidised arts organisations, she is still watching the lottery story unfold. It’s different now, the incomes being drastically reduced by the drop in player numbers; the additionality rules being relaxed so that lottery cash can, if encapsulated in a readable scheme, replace arts subsidy. But the battles still have to be fought, she says: cuts to humanities subjects in the national curriculum, cuts to benefits for disabled artists, cuts to local authorities. For sure, as long as the lottery is still around it will be called in to bail out the shortcomings of subsidy, a story that just keeps on giving as it takes away.
Capital Gains; How the National Lottery transformed England’s arts by Prue Skene is published by Franchise Press
Meanwhile, go to www.artsindustry.co.uk for the latest arts news and features – there’s no pay wall – and read about Maggie Hambling’s Good Time George, Maria Balshaw’s other half and his new job, and why litter bins are putting Brighton Pavilion Gardens at risk, as well as features on the risks of being creative, giving theatre to the people, putting rock and roll back into architecture, and the woman who is leading our future leaders.


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