17 Jun, 2009

Tories reveal their arts strategy

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey spells out the Conservatives’ culture policy – and it sounds strangely familiar …

This spring, the jewel in the crown of Venezuelan culture came to London’s Southbank Centre. There was huge excitement about the residency of the Simón Bolívar ­National Youth Orchestra, but two people were notable by their absence: the then ­culture ­secretary, Andy Burnham, and the arts minister, Barbara Follett. Hugo Chávez’s old pal, former London mayor Ken Livingstone, attended; but the ­politician who came to the concerts and gave the players a tour of parliament was an ­unlikely figure. It was not some ­revolution-loving leftwinger, but the affable shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey, friend of David Cameron, member of the Notting Hill set, and Tory MP for Wantage since 2005.

Vaizey has been shadow arts ­minister for two and a half years now. If Follett has been somewhat invisible, Vaizey has been the opposite. He has left no one in the arts world in doubt as to his commitment to his role – a job, let’s face it, that is pretty low down the ­political pecking order (Burnham was promoted after 17 months, his ­predecessor James Purnell after seven). Aside from Vaizey’s regular appearances at arts events, there is the weekly email from the Conservative Culture and ­Creative Industries Team that pops up in arts world inboxes – a concise little roundup of the key issues. The bulletin even provides occasional comedy value: a recent email identified ­Quentin Crisp, the late gay icon, as the first children’s laureate, a delicious idea. (Vaizey meant, of course, ­illustrator Quentin Blake.)

But why the charm offensive? When we meet in Vaizey’s office in the ­Commons, where an unlikely photograph of him with Tony Benn is pinned to a noticeboard, he puts it like this: “One of the goals I have set ­myself is, if the Tories win on a Thursday, there will be far fewer people in the arts world waking up in a cold sweat on a Friday.”

To this end, he has spent much of the last two years attempting to convince people that a Tory government would not come in with an agenda of cuts in arts funding, but would in fact claw back an extra £50m a year from the lottery. “We know the Labour government is planning cuts across the board,” he says. “And if you look at what [shadow chancellor] George Osborne has said in recent days, we obviously are not going to con people and pretend we wouldn’t find savings. But our approach is not across-the-board cuts, but to look for smart savings.

“Let’s role-play that there’s a Conservative government in 12 months’ time and I happen to be the arts minister. I will be arguing with the Treasury about arts funding and I will put ­forward two basic arguments. One, that we can find savings, but within the bureaucracies that surround arts funding. And two, that any cuts to frontline arts organisations will have a profound impact on their ability to do their jobs. Within the overall framework of ­government spending, arts spending is a very small part. We’re not going to save the economy by cutting the arts – but you could damage the arts by ­cutting the arts.”

Bureaucracies: this is code for Arts Council England, although Vaizey says he is “very committed” to its continuation. Nor does he believe that major ­organisations such as the National ­Theatre should be funded directly by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as was mooted by the Conservative culture task force, led by former Barbican boss John Tusa, in 2007. “But there are,” Vaizey says, “two or three changes we would like to see. We’d like to see ACE identify those organisations where, realistically, we are never going to be in a position to say we are withdrawing funding. We will identify those arts organisations and put in place a long-term funding agreement: we would say, ‘You are a cornerstone arts organisation, your funding is ­guaranteed. Potentially ad infinitum.'”

He adds that he’d like to see Arts Council England acting as a development agency and advice service for arts groups: “I would prefer to see it stop doing certain programmes before it cut frontline arts organisations. There needs to be a debate on what ACE does – and that’s not a threat, a coded message that a future Tory government is coming to get the Arts Council.”

So what is Conservative arts policy? How do the Tories measure the value of the arts? “It would be excellence,” says Vaizey. “It would be the fact that we have a fantastic arts scene in this country, and growing levels of participation. We have innovation, we have fantastically good people – Nick Serota, Neil MacGregor, Sandy Nairne, Nick Hytner. We should be saying, ‘You’re fantastic at what you do. We want you to carry on doing it and doing it brilliantly.’ I don’t want to set them a target and say, ‘You need to diversify audiences.'”

But to all intents and purposes, this is Labour arts policy – which, ­after its post-1997 concentration on ­target-setting and diversifying audiences, adopted “excellence” as its buzzword, along with “participation”, in the wake of the James Purnell-commissioned ­McMaster ­report. Vaizey ­responds: “Yes, there will be changes, but I am not pretending that they are massive ­ideological changes. I admit they are ­detailed points, and I am not going to pretend that an equally committed Labour minister wouldn’t get them sorted if they had the same application.”

Vaizey, 41, is the son of Marina Vaizey, the Guardian-reading former art critic of the Sunday Times, and the late Lord Vaizey, an adviser to ­Harold Wilson who, when Vaizey was nine or 10, ­became a Thatcher supporter. This volte-face was extremely important for his young son. “What I liked about Thatcherism was this slightly iconoclastic ­approach – why should it be business as usual? Why should the state be ­running the telephone service? Those kind of questions, I thought, were much more interesting than any questions being asked by the left, which was mostly ­interested in how much more money to get out of the taxpayer.”

After St Paul’s School in London, Vaizey ­studied at Oxford, where he “formed a close and loving relationship with [shadow secretary of state for ­children, families and schools] Michael Gove”. He met the other ­Notting Hill set people, Cameron and Steve Hilton (now Tory director of strategy), shortly afterwards.

He cites Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Bridget Riley and Frank Auerbach as his favourite artists, though he is less fluent when it comes to expressing enthusiasm for other art forms. “I can’t pretend I go beyond Bach, Mozart, Fauré at a push,” he says, while his pop tastes are rooted in the late 1970s and early 80s (he is a fan of the Specials). He got grade two on the drums as a boy. He struggles to remember the last film he saw at the cinema. “Oh God, who won the Oscars?” Slumdog ­Millionaire? “Yes, Slumdog . . . what else?” The Reader? “Yes, The Reader with Kate Winslet.” Anything else? “Yeah, I do a bit of ­opera and dance. Can’t pretend it’s my passion.”

What does Vaizey make of Thatcher’s record on the arts? “She believed in greater involvement of private ­donors,” he says. “And if you have frank conversations [behind] closed doors, a lot of people in arts organisations will say that a lot of what Thatcher did was actually quite good, in making them go out to the marketplace and raise money.”

But the fact is that the arts were left in tatters after the Conservatives, and that funding doubled in the five years after Labour came to power in 1997. “Yeah, but lottery funding ­significantly decreased, so, if you take the whole pie, the government is spending less on the arts than we were.” I ask Vaizey to provide figures for this claim, which he later emails. He says that, in real terms, the 1997/98 ACE budget ­(including lottery funding of £369m) was £602m; while the 2006/07 figure was £590m (including lottery funding of £150m). This, he ­argues, represents a drop of 2%.

It remains to be seen whether the arts world will take this pleasant and charming man at his word. Those with long memories might recall that, in 1978, the then chairman of the Arts Council wrote to Thatcher asking for her position on funding at a time of huge pressure on public spending. She replied: “I do not believe in the present economic situation it would make sense for any government to look for candle-end economies which yield a very small saving whilst causing upset out of all proportion to the economies achieved . . . I can assure you that we will continue to support the arts.”

After the election, the Conservatives cut the arts budget by £1.1m.

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