or last month, Oliver Dowden pushed for the live Premier League football back on the pitch. Now he has to make a confession. “It’s pretty ironic that I spend a lot of time talking about football … since I’ve never been a huge football fan.”
Many politicians would not be brave enough to admit that – especially if they were sports ministers. They would fake an obsession with a famous team. He is different. “I support my local team, Boreham Wood FC,” he says faithfully – he is currently playing somewhere in the National League – but says that sport is not his job that he likes best. What is? “Art and culture have always been a real passion of mine.”
That is lucky, because perhaps only the Minister of Culture stands in the way of an artistic Armageddon at the moment.
When he took the job after last year’s election it looked like an abyss where he would enjoy free tickets and evenings, the only challenge being to keep more extreme sections of the government from destroying the BBC.
Covid has now closed galleries and live performances. Titans of culture like the Southbank Center say they could go broke. Theaters warn they may never open again – and the art world is still waiting to hear if the government rides to the rescue.
Staff at the Prince Edward Theater, London, inform patrons as it closes its doors, following a statement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson / PA
When I spoke to people who run museums and concert halls, I heard the same thing: Why haven’t we heard from Dowden? Where’s the bailout to keep our world’s best cultural sector alive? Does he realize how disastrous things are?
“I’m not going to watch our world leadership in art and culture be destroyed,” he says in his first newspaper interview on the job.
He is in the middle of a battle with the Treasury Department – he calls it “complicated discussions” – to come up with a plan to save the arts sector from bankruptcy while Covid rules keep it closed. The deal is almost complete. “Of course I want to let the money flow,” he says. “I will not let anyone down.”
“I have always seen the Chancellor and his team very committed and understanding of the value of this sector,” he adds. May be. But even if there is an announcement soon, there will be tough decisions to be made. “Not everyone will be satisfied with everything that comes up. I will have to ask institutions to make difficult decisions. “
Could that mean making decisions – like closing, for example the ENO to save the Royal Opera? The Covid crisis, he says, “is a temporary thing and we do not want to lose cultural institutions permanently”. The arts are central to “the strength, resilience and reputation of London”. He adds, “We’d be absolutely crazy to throw it away”.
Art in Great Britain has done as it was told: to find commercial income from restaurants on the South Bank, for example. Now it is the bodies that have been the most entrepreneurial that have been hit the hardest. Dowden says he’s compassionate. “I don’t want that to bounce back on you.” He doesn’t want only those bodies to survive that are “heavily dependent on public money”. But it is not yet clear what he can do to help.
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden MP pictured in his office in Whitehall, Westminster / Matt Writtle
Dowden doesn’t have a typical Tory background. His father worked in a factory and lost his job in the recession of the early 1990s. His mother still works at Boots. He went to a large-scale event near Watford, in the constituency he now represents, and used to ride the school minibus to London to see West End shows – “fairly accessible” like Les Misérables, Blood Brothers and An Inspector calls.
Sitting in the gods with cheap tickets led him to perform live. He even appeared on the stage of the Edinburgh Fringe in a youth music theater group that snatched a seat when another production was canceled. Their show, the Victorian melodrama Murder in the Red Barn, went under without a trace.
He trained to be a lawyer, didn’t like it and ended up working for David Cameron at number 10, where I remember him as one of the quietest and most capable people in the building. Others made more noise. He got things done. But he has seen nothing as great as the struggle to save the arts.
He says he’s “hopeful” that the rules will be relaxed to allow galleries and museums to open – “I’d love if we could open great galleries from July 4th.” The National Gallery could be an early example with one Be a one-way system. After that he wants “a rolling opening of galleries and other primarily visual cultural institutions”. He is in contact with the chairman of the V&A via SMS and makes plans.
But it will be much more difficult to get the performances back in front of the audience in any way that pays the bills. He commends Wigmore Hall for bringing live music back on the air this month and describes the venue as “that precious, wonderful thing we have in London” – although he says he hasn’t had time to hear the broadcasts. But he accepts a blunt fact: “Something like theater can’t work properly from two meters away.”
That means a large part of London’s cultural life, from shows in the West End to pop-up performances, will remain in crisis, maybe into next year and beyondnd. He says he’s proud of the support the government has given so far through things like the vacation program – but what happens when that expires in October?
Oliver Dowden says he’s “hopeful” that venues like the National Gallery could reopen in July / AFP via Getty Images
He says he spoke to more than 120 art institutions to ask what they need. He has set up a cultural task force to make plans – although their top tier has been criticized for not representing live music. Working groups that report back to him, he says. It is clear, he argues, that “nobody in any art institution wants to be paid to do nothing. They want to get things going again ”. Health advice helps with the resumption of film and television work, also at Elstree in his constituency. At live shows he says: “I want to get so far that they … are actually allowed”.
The last thing he saw on stage before the lockdown was Hamilton. What will the stage be like when the performances return? “Of course, we won’t have anything like we did before until we are able to safely facilitate social distancing.” He speaks of “innovative ideas” such as drive-in cinema or open-air shows or the use of digital technology. “In very limited circumstances, some venues with very low budget appearances may be able to operate on social distancing.”
How about a limited audience at the Last Night of the Proms? “Well, who knows? I would like that of course, ”he says cautiously. He heard it with his grandmother every year. “I still know all the words from Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia by heart.”
London’s performing arts leaders: We must act now
He contracts for a moment, “I sound pretty backward,” adding that he watched Normal People with his wife before bed and wants Parasite to be the next movie he sees.
I think it’s Dowden’s honor that he doesn’t cling to the arts to look cool. Its taste is very English, but warm. He says he loves the fine arts, especially Francis Bacon. On his drive through England, he stops to explore medieval churches. He enjoys reading poetry – Philip Larkin and John Betjeman. Musically he likes Elgar, Mahler and Wagner. He flinches when I ask who his favorite teenage pop star was – there wasn’t a Morrissey poster on his wall. “I would be more interested in the classic ending,” he says. It’s as engaging and open as his answer to football. He said he used to listen to a bit of Pulp – but agrees that he wouldn’t be a star on Popmaster on Radio 2.
In the meantime, he must save art. He promises he can – there will be some sort of bailout, but he is pushing for a long-term deal while the Treasury Department remains focused on aid over the next few months. If he keeps his word, the London musicians will play Elgar for him as much as he wants.