Economics United Kingdom

“Museums will take their share of the pain”

But the new British culture minister insists the government is not walking away from the arts

Art in the blood: Ed Vaizey, son of art historian Marina Vaizey, is having to make tough decisions on cultural funding

LONDON. Ed Vaizey, who under Jeremy Hunt took over as culture minister following the UK’s May election, knows the art scene well, having shadowed the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for the Conservatives for nearly four years. But he is only too aware that things will get very much more difficult this winter, with looming government cuts across all areas of public life: for the arts scene, it is the lull before the storm.

The Art Newspaper: How will national museums fare?

Ed Vaizey: There will be cuts to the arts and museums. They will not be singled out as easy to cut, but neither will they be overly protected. They will take their share of the pain.

TAN: Will museums all face the same percentage cut, or will you examine their individual performances?

EV: We are in the middle of discussions with the Treasury, so it would be wrong to single out particular museums. However, we are going to consider how we can incentivise museums to raise money and reward them for doing so. But that probably would not be a change that we could effect immediately.

TAN: Will national museums be offered greater freedom?

EV: We were ready to consider legislation to give them greater independence, but we are now looking at a number of options. The decision is whether to maintain the status quo or give them clear independence from government. Both carry their own risks.

TAN: Are museums facing a crisis over acquisitions?

EV: There has always been an issue about acquisitions, particularly now with the extraordinary art market. It is obviously very, very tough. But I would not say there is a crisis. When gems come up, like the [Duke of Sutherland’s] Titians, funding is found. We want to get away from the mentality that we must have absolutely everything.

TAN: In opposition, you were critical of the Arts Council, particularly because of its spending on administration. How do you feel now?

EV: I have no doubt about the dedication and professionalism of its staff, but you have to look at the size of Arts Council England’s pot, £450m, of which about £320m goes directly to funded organisations and grants. There are programmes that the Arts Council is undertaking that it will have to think very hard about whether to continue.

TAN: What should the Arts Council drop?

EV: The Arts Council runs at arms length and it is up to them to decide. It is important that the blow is less severe on regularly funded organisations. Would you prefer to see the Arts Council cut a [general] programme or make a theatre go dark? Most people would come down on the side of saving the theatre.

TAN: You are increasing National Lottery money for the arts and heritage, but with the fall in grant-in-aid isn’t there a danger that the principle of “additionality”—that the Lottery should not replace government funding—is under threat?

EV: It may be that projects under threat are realised thanks to the Lottery. But what will certainly not be breached is the principle that the Lottery won’t be used as a substitute for grant-in-aid. The Arts Council has been creative, and I don’t use that term pejoratively, in the way they use the Lottery to fund projects. The additionality principle is still there.

TAN: Isn’t it difficult to ask private donors to give more when government funding is being cut?

EV: Yes, it is difficult. It is important to get across the message that the government is not walking away from the arts, although it is a particularly difficult time. I would say to philanthropists: the government will still be a part of the organisations which you support, and the reason we are reducing funding is to get the economy back into shape, so people can run successful businesses. We care hugely about philanthropists: we want to recognise and celebrate them much more.

TAN: There has been considerable cynicism about the Cultural Olympiad. Isn’t the Olympics diverting resources away from the arts?

EV: The Olympics is a once in a lifetime chance to do something great. I felt relieved when I came into government that Ruth Mackenzie is in charge of the Cultural Olympiad, with Tony Hall [its chairman]. It was very painful that it had taken so long to appoint someone. A lot of potential money has been dissipated. If there had been a focus three years ago we could be on track to have something really extraordinary. As it is, the person who can make something happen is Ruth Mackenzie.

TAN: After you had been shadow culture secretary for nearly four years, some people felt you were going native. Is it better to know your subject, or to come to it fresh?

EV: I think you need to know the subject area. You need to be able to ask your officials intelligent and awkward questions. The obverse is that you could come to a brief and ask the “dumb” questions, which are sometimes the most important ones. Why do we do this? Why does this organisation exist? Perhaps you can’t, if like me, you’ve been in this area for a while. That could potentially be a weakness, but it is outweighed by the strength of knowing and understanding. Enthusiasm counts for a lot in this sector. You’ve to punch above your weight in this department. You’ve to get other bigger, meatier departments interested in the work you are doing.

TAN: What do you enjoy about the job?

EV: The opportunity to do things. You set the direction of travel, and officials are there to help you get there. I often think that I would have been a much more effective opposition spokesman if I had had two months in the department. So once Labour has had its leadership election, I will probably invite the party’s culture spokesman to shadow me for a week so they can learn the job. You get a much greater insight into how things work once you are inside.

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