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Editor’s Letter: Culture Secretaries

15 April 2014

DCMS. It sounds more like a shabby homeware store than the government department charged with protecting and promoting the nation’s culture. But perhaps that’s appropriate, given the flimsy lifespan of the top job at the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport in recent years. At the time of writing, Sajid Javid has just been awarded the ministerial brief, making him the third culture secretary of the current government and the seventh person to hold the post since 2007. In the past decade there have been more culture secretaries than Italian prime ministers.

To be fair, Javid’s immediate predecessor, Maria Miller, had little choice but to resign following errors of judgement. That does little to quell the suspicion, however, that successive prime ministers have handed out this role more as a means of kickstarting or prolonging someone’s cabinet career than with an eye to their existing knowledge of, or sympathy for the arts. One has to think back to Chris Smith, who served under Tony Blair from 1997 until 2001, to remember a culture secretary with a manifest passion for the arts – or one who, with the introduction of free admission to national museums, left any significant legacy.

The DCMS is undeniably a confusing, sprawling brief – and has been since David Mellor, as the first culture secretary in 1992, described himself rather too jauntily as ‘Minister of Fun’. It seems to force the incumbent to focus on one of its components at the expense of others: Hunt’s big thing was the media; Tessa Jowell somehow rearranged the letters of  ‘Culture, Media and Sport’ to make them spell out ‘London Olympics’. It can hardly have helped Maria Miller to have been appointed Minister for Women and Equalities as well: her job was the sort of overstuffed portmanteau that makes every aspect seem tokenistic.

All the same, Miller did herself few favours when it came to the arts. Even if it stemmed from a lack of assurance, her detached attitude easily came across as indifference to those realms of heritage, creativity and indeed imaginative possibility that she ought to have defended. This was nowhere more apparent than in her widely criticised keynote speech at the British Museum last April, which kitted out a weary economic argument for the arts in the most threadbare of management jargon. Here culture was ‘product’, then culture was ‘platform’ and so on, until culture was anything but culture.

There is little about Javid’s career to date to suggest he has any deep interest in either art or the arts more broadly. Not that we ought to rule it out: art, music and literature are things nurtured in the mind before they are inscribed on the CV, which is something Javid might consider when he looks back at his predecessor’s crude stance on economic value.

Either way, the new culture secretary would do well to be as visible as possible at arts venues in coming months, and not only in London but also the cash-strapped regions – cultivating his interest, meeting artists and curators, listening, learning. He could do worse than follow the recommendations of his undersecretary, Ed Vaizey: able and engaged, the minister for culture, communications and creative industries sometimes seems the only person in office to understand that culture might actually give pleasure.

After a period of stinging cuts in public funding for the arts, there was one green shoot for the museum sector in this spring’s budget. The Cultural Gifts Scheme (CGS), which came into force in April 2013 and which at long last offers tax breaks to incentivise lifetime giving, has been extended by the tune of £10 million in its second year. But it is still capped at a total aggregate value for donations of £40 million per annum – a figure that also incorporates those objects acquired via the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) scheme. In its current form the CGS encourages important gifts but not huge ones, and is likely to short-circuit if someone decides to give a Titian to the nation.

If fundraising and philanthropy are the future of the UK arts sector – as we are so frequently told – then the government must do what it can to foster a buoyant culture of giving. Sajid Javid could get started with that.

Editor’s note: This article was amended on 16 April 2014 to correct an error about Jeremy Hunt’s time in office. Hunt did not resign as culture secretary as the article originally suggested.

Related articles

Will the arts world in the UK miss Maria Miller? (Igor Toronyi-Lalic)

Does the UK need more cultural gifts? (Maurice Davies)

This article features in the upcoming May issue of Apollo

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