London — The vexed question of funding for the arts in Britain is like a running battle in which there are no victors. The battle is pitched against the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Critics accuse the government of a parsimonious approach to arts funding. They say it is stifling the development -- and even the conservation -- of a precious national heritage.
But recent moves indicate that attitudes are changing, not within government, but on the part of those responsible for administering the arts. The arts are getting down to business and a new commercial sense is emerging. The Arts Council, an independent body that administers government funds to the performing and visual arts nationwide, is leading the way.
The council recently published a report that makes a strong case for the arts as a sound investment for public funds. In its ``Prospectus for the Arts,'' the council tries to persuade the government to increase its level of support by pointing out that art, as an industry, directly employs some 175,000 people -- as well as many more in peripheral services. The prospectus also argues that the arts are a major source of tax revenue, and that they are an important factor in the growth of tourism. As a resu lt, the report continues, they help to revitalize decaying urban areas.
Furthermore, it points out, the arts play an important role in education and in the creation of a favorable image abroad. In short, the prospectus says, public funds chaneled into the arts are not funds cast into a bottomless pit, but are funds invested at a good rate of return.
It remains to be seen to what extent the government will take the point. The case for museums and libraries
The council does not include museums, galleries, and libraries among its clients. These are funded directly by the government.
Indeed, the case for the museums and galleries is not so easy to put. While their value in terms of education, tourism, and national prestige is undoubted, the returns on capital invested are not so easy to quantify.
At the same time, however, their needs for cash are endless. They face rapidly rising prices for major works -- a form of inflation brought about by strong competition from abroad -- and the high cost of maintaining existing buildings and collections.
The trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum, are faced with the need of resources far in excess of current income. Like the Arts Council, they have assessed the value of what they have to offer. But unlike the council, they have decided that their best hope of response is not from the government but from the public.
As a result, access to the museum is no longer free. Visitors are now required to make a voluntary donation in a scheme similar to that operating at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A spokesman for the museum admits the possibility that the current level of attendances could drop, especially as other museums in the area, such as the Natural History and the Science museums, will not be making a charge. But the experience of the Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory at Greenwich, which has imposed a fixed entry charge, indicates that this will be only a temporary setback.
As yet, no other major museum or gallery has followed the V. & A. 's lead.
The trustees of the National Gallery, on the other hand, remain implacably opposed to making an entry charge. But a spokesman said the gallery would be keeping a watchful eye on the effects of the V. & A. scheme.
J. Paul Getty Jr. 's recent gift of 20 million to the Natinal Gallery -- with a further 30 million to follow -- has certainly improved its position. It has been stated that the money from Mr. Getty will be invested and only the interest added to the annual purchase grant from the government.
The trouble with this plan is that the annual interest on 50 million will buy a picture only from the lower end of the range of top works. The appearance on the market of a picture such as Mantegna's ``Adoration of the Magi'' -- which recently sold for a little over 8 million at Christie's in London -- would require more than the combined purchasing funds for a whole year. Provincial museum funding
The funding of provincial museums and galleries, meanwhile, is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future -- despite the fact that their need for cash is equally pressing.
Christopher Gilbert, director of Temple Newsam House, a branch of Leeds City Art Gallery, described their modest entry charge as merely a ``security screen'' that contributes very little to their income. The present system of funding from local authority rates for normal purchases and maintenance topped up by contributions from various charitable sources for major acquisitions is satisfactory, he says. He does not welcome the prospect of becoming responsible for promotion and fund raising, which would r equire staff he does not have.
However, fund raising is an inevitable part of a director's job, as can be seen from Temple Newsam's recent purchase of the Channon writing cabinet.
This cabinet has been described as the single most spectacular piece of English 18th-century furniture, and it was most desirable that it should enter the very distinguished collection at Temple Newsam.
The piece was being offered at a price of 211,000, described by Mr. Gilbert as ``bargain basement'' by the beneficiaries of the late Arthur Bull under a private treaty scheme of benefit to both parties. It was rumored that an American collector was only too willing to pay the open market price of 600,000, but the owners agreed to give Gilbert time to raise the funds.
Temple Newsam's annual purchase grant amounts to only 30,500, so urgent help was sought from various charities, the government Leeds City Council, and two private individuals.
As it turned out, Gilbert was able to muster his forces just in time. But he must be hoping that the need will not arise again too soon.