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Artists flinch at 'honour' of hanging in Tory offices

Culture minister Ed Vaizey says he ruffled feathers after selecting contemporary artworks to adorn Westminster

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Monday 30 August 2010 00:00 BST

One might be forgiven for thinking that the task of choosing which pictures to hang on the walls of an expanded new office in Westminster would be one of the least contentious facing an incoming minister.

Not so for Ed Vaizey, the Culture minister, however. He has admitted that his choices from the Government Art Collection have ruffled political feathers among some of the artists themselves, who did not appreciate the "honour" of being admired by a Tory.

Moving into the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Mr Vaizey secured a drawing by the former Young British Artist, Michael Landy, called Compulsory Obsolescence. It was the first painting Landy completed after Break Down, a performance piece from 2001 in which he destroyed all of his possessions. But when Mr Vaizey met the artist at a dinner at the Royal Academy and told him of his choice he did not get the reaction he had hoped for.

"I told Michael Landy he was hanging on my wall and he was absolutely horrified," Mr Vaizey admitted to The Independent.

And not just him. Also on Mr Vaizey's wall is a poster-style screenprint, Mark Wallinger is Innocent.

Mr Vaizey suggested that the artist himself, Mark Wallinger, a lifelong Labour supporter, would be just as dismayed by his choice and that of his boss Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who likewise chose a Wallinger from the collection. "I went to the Turner Prize in Liverpool two years ago. He [Wallinger] might think he's a radical, but his sister came up to me and said, 'I love you in The Wright Stuff.' I got it within the week of taking office.... I got my Mark Wallinger before Jeremy Hunt got his," said Mr Vaizey.

Neither artist offered a response to Mr Vaizey's comments, despite several approaches. Mr Vaizey did manage to cite one artist – Tracey Emin – among those on his walls whom he regards as Conservative supporters. "She is still hanging on by her fingernails," he said.

Speaking to The Independent about the state of arts funding, philanthropic giving and his role at the DCMS, Mr Vaizey admitted that he may have over-stepped the mark with his decorating desires. So overreaching were his hopes, in fact, that some of his requests were met by raised eyebrows. "I asked for a Damien Hirst, but I got a withering look," he said.

Mr Vaizey was categorically informed by Penny Johnson, head of the Government Art Collection, which has more than 1,000 works in its vaults, that "We are not an Argos catalogue", after logging his requests for "a lot of British artists". What he did manage to secure was a screenprint by Richard Long entitled Waterlines, two sketches by Emin, the poster by Wallinger and the Landy drawing, among other works, as well as some fashion and film pieces yet to arrive, including a dress designed by Hussein Chalayan.

Mr Vaizey, 42, began his political career as an adviser and speech-writer in the inner circle of the former Tory leader, Michael Howard, alongside a then fresh-faced David Cameron and George Osborne, who were, in the early days, disparagingly referred to as the "Notting Hill Set". Today, he cuts a far more heavyweight figure, although he is not seen to have the same level of steely ambition as Mr Hunt, who is only two years his senior.

Speaking about his vision for arts funding, Mr Vaizey defended Mr Hunt's funding model of philanthropic giving combined with government funds. Last month, at least seven of Britain's leading benefactors wrote to the Prime Minister to warn that the gap left by threatened arts cuts of up to 40 per cent could not be bridged by private money.

"What Jeremy Hunt is saying is that philanthropy will never replace government support for the arts. In fact, we realise that government funding is almost a pre-requisite for philanthropic giving," Mr Vaizey said. The Conservative Party is set to throw a party for arts philanthropists this autumn, as an official "thanks", he added. "We do not say thank you enough to philanthropists. If they are seen to be thanked and praised, more people will give."

He also advocated less British reserve on the part of many arts benefactors who did not want to "shout" about their giving. "People who are incredibly generous do not tend to shout about it from the rooftops," he said. It's fantastically admirable and quite British... [But] we would like more people to shout about it."

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