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Prue Skene: The National Lottery has changed the face of the arts, but is the tap running dry?

The Lowry Centre in Manchester is one of the success stories commissioned with the aid of funding grants from the National Lottery. Photo: Len Grant The Lowry Centre in Manchester is one of the success stories commissioned with the aid of funding grants from the National Lottery. Photo: Len Grant
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The culture sector will feel the squeeze of declining National Lottery ticket sales. While this is potentially disastrous, says Prue Skene, credit must be given to the impact of the arts’ funding share since 1994


As each week seems to bring another tale of a local authority announcing drastic cuts to its arts budget – or abolishing it altogether – and figures show a decline in the number of children studying an arts subject, it seems almost inconceivable there was a time when almost too much money was flooding into the cultural sector.

John Major’s government introduced the National Lottery in 1994 and since then it has raised £37 billion for groups including arts organisations, charities and sporting bodies. But as gambling habits change, the money it hands to ‘Good Causes’ is coming under increasing pressure.

I don’t believe that too much money can ever flow into the arts, but in those early years, Lottery receipts exceeded all expectations, and the application systems for distributing them took some time to run smoothly. That led to a relatively short period when there was more money coming in than there were applications to spend it on.

I don’t think that proper recognition has ever been given to the enormous change that Lottery money has made to the development and spread of the arts in this country.

The New Art Gallery in Walsall was funded with he help of Lottery grants. Photo:

I was a member of Arts Council England when the Lottery was launched in 1994 and took over as chair of its Lottery Panel after its first year as a Lottery distributor.

In order not to prejudice ACE’s Treasury revenue grant, initial directions stipulated that arts Lottery money could only be spent on capital projects. The only exception was film, but that was never a happy association and there was some relief both within ACE and the film industry when those funds were subsequently transferred to the Film Council – which went on to meet its own demise in 2010, but that is another story.

The need for investment in arts buildings was huge. For many years, apart from a relatively small Housing the Arts budget, no money had been available to build or refurbish theatres, galleries and other spaces where art is performed, displayed or participated in, and much of the capital infrastructure was in a dire state. Also, it was mostly closed to anyone with any kind of access need.

It is common knowledge that even the smallest building project needs time, care, expertise and money and it’s remarkable how arts managers quickly grasped the opportunity and acted as champions to deliver projects, both new and refurbishments of the existing sites, that literally changed the cultural landscape of the country.

Of course, there was a legacy: many of the business plans on which early grants were made were hopelessly optimistic and the ensuing revenue implications caused many a headache for ACE in future years.

But at least that initial investment was made and one of the big pluses was the emphasis put on total accessibility throughout. Although some people queried the necessity of providing access to flytowers for wheelchairs, I don’t think anyone with any access needs would dispute that a change in mindset began in those days.

Not that it was all about buildings. Technology was beginning to make its mark, and the investment in theatrical kit enabled suppliers to be more innovative than before.

Brass and silver bands benefited enormously from new instruments, as did a host of more diverse musical organisations; touring companies got vans and circus companies their big tops. After two years, revenue programmes began to be introduced and the whole nature of ACE grants changed. When I first joined the council in 1992, the emphasis was on its regularly funded organisations. There was only a small budget for Projects and Schemes (development money) being fought over by the ACE art form departments and their regional colleagues.

Individual artists were not eligible to apply and ‘amateur’ arts were looked on with some disdain. An early Lottery scheme called A4E widened the field enormously for the first time by opening applications to anyone with an artistic project. This subsequently led to the Grants for the Arts scheme, which now caters for an even wider spectrum.

The growth in participatory arts, in site-specific work, in cultural programmes around the marking of national events such as the current 14-18NOW programme has all come about because of the Lottery. Individual artists can obtain funds to research, develop and tour their work. Training schemes promote good management and a whole range of strategic planning and initiatives is accomplished by ACE through its Lottery funds. For many years, Lottery income maintained its levels, although money was removed from the arts and other good causes to fund the Olympic celebrations.

But the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition did readjust the balance when they came to power in 2010, only of course to take a good swipe at Treasury funds in return.

Editor’s View: Arts can’t rely on Lottery cash to plug funding gaps

But then in 2016, Lottery income began to fall. This came at a time when cuts to the Treasury grant and political pressure on ACE to release funds held for a rainy day had seen it turn to Lottery funding to support its national portfolio organisations.

This could have disastrous consequences – in 2016/17, ACE’s Lottery income dropped by £55 million, and if this was to be maintained the effects on its overall income would be catastrophic.

Camelot’s UK arm revealed in June that following a fall in Lottery ticket sales the amount it handed to good causes in the year to March 31 had fallen 14.4% to £1.6 billion. It has predicted further sales declines this year.

I’m tired of hearing of the Lottery’s few capital disasters while thousands of successful projects go unapplauded

The Lottery doesn’t have an untarnished name. I’m tired of hearing about its few capital disasters such as the National Centre for Popular Music, while thousands of successful projects go unapplauded. Perhaps there lingers a certain distaste that the money comes from a form of public gambling. During my time chairing ACE’s Lottery Panel in the late 1990s, it was often religious organisations that eagerly accepted the money, but were reluctant to credit its source.

Looking back to the scene in 1995, with dreary, inaccessible arts buildings, limited access to revenue funding and a Treasury grant ever susceptible to political whim, it’s unarguable that the Lottery has changed the entire eco culture of the arts. What comes next is anyone’s guess.

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