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Sydney Lenssen Construction should track the state of the arts

Three people are set to drive an ambitious revolution through the English arts. In April, Culture Secretary Chris Smith brought in Gerry Robinson as chairman of the Arts Council, adding to his job as boss of Granada and its motorway cafes and Coronation Street. Before that, in January, EMI's chief

executive Sir Colin Southgate took the chair at the Royal Opera House.

The trio's mission is to widen access to the arts, to push up standards of artistic excellence and to deepen understanding of the arts through education. They are convinced that the arts have too often patronised audiences and that artists and performers ply their trade to the same white middle class crowd. Their duty is to spread experience of the arts.

In his first public lecture last week, Robinson spelled out how government grants and lottery funds for the arts will be spent - and there is more than pounds400M a year for the asking!

He sees the arts as being about jobs and earnings as well as inspiration and imagination. 'Why should the young and long term unemployed only look to clerical or construction work as their routes out of benefit? Why shouldn't the arts help lift depressed areas out of despair? Why aren't they central to it?'

So he is to halve his council's staff in London to 150, strengthen the regional arts boards, and get more of the money decided on and spent in the regions. 'Many of you will be surprised at the scale of the increased funds - a bonanza for the regions,' says Robinson.

If theatre, concert hall and art gallery trusts around the country seize their chances, construction should see a sizeable boom in new buildings, extensions and refurbishment.

Of course, not all the money will go on bricks and mortar, for arts activities in most towns are desperately in need of subsidy just to stay open. The amount spent on buildings will depend largely on public perception.

The three required priorities - excellence, education and access - also apply to the Royal Opera House in London. On top of them Sir Colin Southgate is tasked to bring sound management to the chaos which presently engulfs that establishment, as resignation follows resignation.

Next year ROH opera and ballet will stop until their new home is finished in December 1999. This week is crunch time with the unions, and if they don't agree staff cuts, reduced wages and the closure plans, then everyone will be served notice.

The public's perception of what is happening at Covent Garden is recognised by the minister, Robinson and Southgate as fundamental to their wider ambitions. Completion on time and budget for the pounds120M rebuilding of the Royal Opera House is more crucial than ever.

Development director John Seekings insists that Schal, the designers and contractors are insulated from all the ructions. 'We're on schedule.' I hope he's right.

A lot of money at Covent Garden has been spent on the new studio theatre, planned partly to house education activities. It will be mothballed when finished because there won't be money to stage anything.

For some time I have argued that this second theatre on Bow Street was a mistake, generating extra traffic and proving uneconomic due to being underground. It is still no pleasure to see a tragic waste. Architects and engineers need to guard clients against being extravagant while under the influence of lottery lures.

The new Sadler's Wells, another Lottery-aided project and one of the earliest, was re-opened last week. Much was made of builders' helmets mingling with the first night audience, but the theatre was ready to open on time. Well done! That's the sort of track record construction needs.

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