Lottery funds: do the arts justify the means?

The National Lottery gets rave reviews from the people who head some of London's major arts institutions - and it's not hard to see why. Revenue from the lottery has helped fund megaprojects that might otherwise have remained drawing-board fantasies.

Some institutions hit the jackpot: The British Museum is receiving over $75 million; the Tate Gallery of British Art almost $30 million; the Tate Gallery of Modern Art about $80 million.

These grants, according to lottery director Robert Anderson, allow museums to go to potential donors and say, " 'We've got this wonderful start. Will you help us complete the job?' "

Yet some people, both inside and outside of the arts community, don't like connecting the lottery to the arts. John Pick, who recently co-authored a book on the history of the arts in Britain ("Building Jerusalem"), says that the lottery "focuses everyone's mind on short-term satisfaction, upon greed and glamour." The irony, he says, is that "the arts exist purely to make us lift our eyes from that sort of concern," but meanwhile draw funds from it.

"The most successful projects in Britain have been those that have been created by public subscription [rather than] by concentrating money in the hands of a tiny elite," adds the Rev. John Kennedy, a staunch critic of lotteries. "The lottery is supposed to be set up to serve good causes. Creating [thousands] of compulsive young gamblers a year is not a good cause."

The Rev. Richard Thomas of the Church of England, based in Oxford, says the lottery creates false expectations, calling it "a giant fraud perpetrated on the lowest income groups in this country."

According to figures from the Center for Research into the Social Impact of Gambling, at the University of Plymouth, children under the legal gambling age of 16 are spending money on the lottery. And some are becoming problem gamblers.

The lottery is "entirely voluntary [and] very much a democratic institution involving people from all walks of life," says Stephen Deucher, director of the Tate Gallery of British Art, defending its funding of the arts. "Every individual lottery player is playing a role in the development of the arts in this country."

Michael O'Connor, director of the Millennium Commission, one of the three groups responsible for deciding how lottery money will be spent on the arts, says, "It's a very hard decision.... Yet I think there is no such thing as completely clean money." Mr. O'Connor cites the funds government gets from the tobacco tax, "a tax on someone else's addiction. What matters is how you put that money to use."

"The lottery came along, and the first schemes that got money tended to the biggest ones in London," says Peter Longman, director of the Theaters Trust. "These big schemes then got even bigger." Although Mr. Longman praises much of the work made possible by the lottery, he says there should have been a better "overall national strategy" for funding the arts projects.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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