Visual Arts UK, an informal alliance of national visual arts organisations, recently met the Shadow Arts Minister, Ed Vaizey, to discuss the situation of the visual arts under any future Tory government.  Just a few days later, a major conference in London entitled ‘State of the Arts’ addressed the future of arts funding and cultural policy in the UK. Both Ben Bradshaw, the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Jeremy Hunt, his opposite number, were speakers. 
One thing is clear: Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey enjoy their brief. Recipients of their weekly newsletter will know that it is quite a jolly affair, with well-informed, combative and often light-hearted news and commentary. On a one-to-one basis they are equally approachable.
Ben Bradshaw speaking at State of the Arts conference
Jeremy Hunt speaking at the State of the Arts conference
Indeed they manifestly want to be liked and better understood by an arts establishment which, let’s be honest, has always leaned a long way to the left. They are aggrieved that Labour has stolen all the credit for the achievements of the lottery programme, which - they are quick to point out - was established by the Major government in the early 1990s. They accuse Labour of having ‘raided’ the lottery in order to fund the Olympics and promise that they will restore lottery funding to its pre-Olympics level. Government spending on the arts, they say, has actually fallen under Labour, if you look at the sum total of expenditure from the exchequer and lottery combined - a contention fiercely rebutted by the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ben Bradshaw.
Caroline Wright Sack Race, 2009
Both Arts Council England (ACE) and the much-vaunted ‘arm’s length principle’ of the post-war arts settlement will apparently remain in place under a Tory government. But Hunt and Vaizey complain that ACE’s administrative costs are unjustifiably high and want to see these reduced beyond even the level achieved by recent drastic re-structuring. A ‘leaner but not meaner’ Arts Council is the goal. According to the Tories, ACE spends 11% of its total budget on staffing and overheads. On principle, they argue, no quango should spend more than 5% of the money it receives from government on administration. Not so, says Liz Forgan, Chair of ACE, who claims that administrative costs are now down to as little as 6% of total expenditure. No doubt the war of claim and counter-claim will continue.
Hunt and Vaizey concede that ACE does more than merely distribute money. They agree that it has an important role to play in creating the conditions that enable the arts to flourish, through negotiation, brokerage and strategic investment. But they are yet to be convinced that ACE does this very effectively. And the question of how and where arts policy is made remains unresolved. Hunt seemed to hint that policy-making might rest with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport rather than within ACE – not exactly the ‘arm’s length’ approach guaranteed in his other pronouncements.
Ann-Marie James From the series ‘Limited Means’ D04, 2009
Susan Truseler The Butterfly Hunt 05, 2008
Free admission to our national museums and galleries will remain in place. The Tories also intend to maintain the programme of Renaissance in the Regions funding which has benefited many of our larger regional museums and galleries. However, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which has overseen this investment, looks less secure and could end up being merged with Arts Council England.
The shadow arts team have embraced arguments about the importance of the ‘creative economy’, supposedly as much as 10% of our GDP, and will press this case with colleagues. They say our creative edge is central to our economic success and a fundamental component of our national ‘brand’. Both Hunt and Vaizey acknowledge the beneficial impact of the YBAs (in PR terms at least) and the symbiotic nature of the relationship between ‘pure’ fine art practice and other forms of visual and creative endeavour.
Catherine Bertola Blue Babylonica, 2009
Karen Ay Truth/Deceit, 2009
Much of the emphasis of arts funding since 1997 has been on the widening of audiences for the arts rather than on creative practice as a good in itself. Hunt and Vaizey insist that the arts matter for their intrinsic value as well as for their instrumental benefits. In their book, there is no contradiction or tension between these two opposing views of what the arts are ‘for’.
As ideological opponents of bureaucracy and social engineering, the Tory arts team promise an end to ‘target culture’ and political interference. Targets, they maintain, are not the best way to broaden audiences. Instead, they welcome the use of technology in widening audience engagement with the arts, although the example cited by Hunt in his conference speech (i.e. the Royal Opera House broadcasting opera to nearly 80 digital cinemas worldwide) did not exactly reinforce his populist credentials.
A central strand of Conservative policy (and of the consumerist political discourse emanating from the other main parties) is ‘localism’ – in other words the idea that local people will determine how public money is spent in their area. Vaizey did not elaborate how this might apply to arts spending and Hunt was notably silent about this aspect of Conservative thinking in his conference speech. It would be interesting to know, for example, how this might affect Mark Wallinger’s proposal for a giant sculpture of a white horse at Ebbsfleet International station in north Kent, where there has been a significant groundswell of local opposition.
Andrew Parker Not 24 Hours: Blue Post, Devon, 2006
It comes as no surprise to learn that the Tories are keen to extend private patronage of the arts and blur the boundaries that exist between the public and private spheres. They will encourage the growth of an American-style culture of philanthropy and individual giving, and reward arts organisations which build up endowments by offering them five-year funding agreements.
Predictably, much of the discussion about the future of the arts revolves around the needs of large ‘producing’ and ‘presenting’ organisations. As users of Axis don’t need to be reminded, artists generally work on their own and often rely on precariously funded studio spaces and informal support networks for survival. So where do they fit into this debate? And what should we be arguing for? We need to make sure that the individual practitioner becomes more visible to politicians and policy-makers as they deliberate the future of arts funding in the months to come. After all we don’t want artists air-brushed out of existence. Let’s leave that to the Tory advertising campaign.
 The representatives of Visual Arts UK at this meeting included: the Visual Arts and Galleries Association, a-n, Artquest, the Crafts Council, engage (the National Association for Gallery Education), Axis, the National Federation of Artists’ Studio Providers and the International Curators Forum.
 ‘State of the Arts’ was jointly organised by Arts Council England and the Royal Society of Arts. For more information, see the conference website: www.thersa.org/events/state-of-the-arts-conference