Tessa, the unexpected arts champion

Simon Tait on the longest serving culture secretary who brought art to the hearths of Britain

No-one seemed more surprised than Tessa Jowell on a balmy Saturday evening in June 2001 when she climbed a few steps up an outside stair in an East Dulwich garden to announce to party workers in her constituency that a few moments before she had been appointed Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport.

It wasn’t expected, she was being given a brief much wider than her predecessor’s, with elements of Home Office responsibility drafted in, and she admitted knowing next to nothing about the arts, but she would learn. She was to confide later that on arriving at DCMS her civil servants told her nothing more was required of her than “money, silence and policy”.

But as the longest serving culture secretary Tessa was to preside over what, in his only prime ministerial speech on the arts in March 2007, Tony Blair was to declare was “a golden age for the arts” in which cultural funding had been doubled.

The key to national prosperity was human capital, he said in a speech at Tate Modern that had her copious notes in the margin: the ability of people to innovate, to think anew, to be creative. "Such people are broad-minded, they thrive on curiosity about the next idea; they welcome the challenge of an open world. Such breadth of mind is enormously enhanced by interaction with arts and culture: he could have been referring to Tessa herself..

“A nation that cares about art will not just be a better nation, in the early 21stcentury it will be a more successful one” he said.

Much of that was due to the diligent, listening, doughty, know-nothing Tessa Jowell who not only fought in Cabinet against her colleagues’ opposition, she later said, to get arts subsidy back to what Jennie Lee had achieved a generation before, she presided over a 73% increase in arts funding, theatre funding more than doubled, free entry to national museums (put in place by her predecessor Chris Smith before her), £2bn of lottery money invested, private support up by almost £100m, funding for museums up 28%.

And having won the Cabinet’s grudging approval to bid for the 2012 Olympics she insisted on culture being a major part of the submission to the International Olympic Committee. That Cultural Olympiad was to change the national engagement with the arts for ever, bringing culture into the communities and hearths of the nation.

She had her critics, and they were particularly vociferous when lottery cash promised for the arts had to be severely cut to help pay for the Olympics, but she said it was to be a temporary cut. It was. She was criticised for not being publicly seen at arts events, even though, for instance, she regularly went to ENO performances with parliamentary friends like Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Hodge which she said was her private enjoyment.

There was a growing row among purists about the hijacking of art by social policy-makers which, they said, were using culture to tackle crime, boost educational standards and regenerate rundown cities - "instrumentalising" was the ugly term they had for it - and in 2004 she held a day-long conference at the Southbank Centre to thrash the thing out. It was time to speak out for “art for art’s sake”. She did, in a 19-page pamphlet. "Intelligent public subsidy" would be vital if the arts were to take their place at the heart of national life. Audiences would be developed only through "determined policy initiatives".

She was, she said, merely a consumer of art like everyone else, but had seen the value of it in society. "There is a parody of culture which is prevalent, that these are issues of interest only to a disconnected elite. But it is the enthusiasm and hunger that people have for culture that is driving this".

And she quoted her predecessor Jennie Lee, the very first arts minister. "I was struck by the gusto with which she was an advocate for the arts” she said. “She didn't feel that she had to justify the arts in any other than their own terms". Neither did Tessa Jowell, and she fought for arts subsidy as no-one had before or has since.


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