April 26, 2013

Testing Times: Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s worrying speech


When Miller’s around, even the paintings look disturbed.

At an event on Wednesday at the British Museum, Culture Secretary Maria Miller addressed the heads of British arts organisations with a speech entitled,  ‘Testing Times: Fighting culture’s corner in an age of austerity’. From just the title alone, it was easy to tell what Miller’s subject and intention would be: usher in the cuts to art funding, and then urge everyone to work harder.

Although it happens constantly, I still find it hard to stomach the kind of language used by Miller in her speech. Important but glib remarks such as, ‘culture is at the very heart of what it means to be human. Culture educates, entertains and it enriches’ were followed by deathly one-liners: ‘This museum is the UK’s most popular tourist attraction’, which revealed what Miller was really getting at: ‘culture’, that big, nebulous term so easily appropriated by our leaders, cannot be an end unto itself; it must serve every other industry in order to earn its keep. Miller went onto to say a number of things that crystallised her position, and they’re worth quoting:

‘Alongside these social benefits, perhaps because of them, culture is able to deliver things which few other sectors can. It brings our country to life and encourages people to visit our shores … it allows us to build international relationships forging a foundation for the trade deals of tomorrow; it cultivates the creativity which underpins our wider industrial efforts.’

‘With that in mind, today I want to argue that culture does not simply have a role to play in bringing about a return to growth. Rather, it should be central to these efforts.’

‘Understanding the economic potential which the arts and culture offer both directly and indirectly is essential. The arts are not an add-on; they are fundamental to our success as a nation.’

Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect our large arts and cultural organisations to pay their way. Artistic centres like the British Museum welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors on a monthly basis, and they’re well-run businesses as well as national landmarks. But expecting cultural institutions to operate in order to provide the basis for future trade deals, to be the driving force behind industry and, most preposterously, to be at the centre of economic re-growth? That’s not only unreasonable and misguided, it’s also dangerous.

If the government judges and distributes funding to artists and their organisations based purely on their money-making potential, all we’re going to get is nationalistic art that serves as a gigantic (and boring) ad for how GREAT™ England is, and maybe some plays about the Big Society. And such a policy also harms the community-based projects that the tourists never see, those which will never earn any money or help secure an international relationship, but might allow teenagers in a deprived part of the country to have access to a theatre, or a dance studio.

But all of that’s pretty obvious. And besides, Miller wasn’t addressing those small organisations, she was speaking to the big dogs—the leaders of the largest cultural institutions in the land. Which makes you realise just how patronising her speech appeared: these people know what they’re doing! As Martin Bright put it in The Spectator:

The people who run the major arts organisations in this country generally do a rather brilliant job. These are not “luvvies”; these are effective leaders of big institutions. Ministers running big government departments could learn a lot from these people.

However, despite the fact that Miller was standing in front of individuals and their organisations who had, for example, brought £5 million into their local community (Yorkshire Sculpture Park) or earned a £10 million box office advance on Broadway (the RSC’s Matilda) — Miller quoted these figures as though her audience had never heard them before, never mind achieved them — she still felt it necessary to leave them with a set of directives. These were:

  • to continue to build resilience, self-confidence and self-reliance;
  • to seek out new artistic and commercial opportunities;
  • to position yourself squarely within the visitor economy;
  • and to look for international opportunities which will benefit Britain.

Which might be translated as:

  • Look after yourselves because it’s going to be lonely when we stop funding you. Which we will, round about now.
  • Every time you think of the word ‘art’, replace it with the word ‘money’
  • No gift shop is too large.
  • Before each artistic decision, ask yourself, ‘but will the businessmen of Abu Dhabi approve?’

The saddest aspect of the speech was that Miller muddled artistic achievement with economic output; she missed out many of the things that the arts can do — challenge, subvert, question, experiment etc, etc — that apparently aren’t worth mentioning anymore. And if she doesn’t know what these things are and how properly to value them, how can we trust her to be in charge of our artists, our art and our culture?


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.