For the past month, Oliver Dowden has pushed to put Premier League football back on the pitch. Now he has a confession to make. “It’s quite ironic that I spend a lot of time talking about football … given that I’ve never been a big football fan.
Many politicians would not have the courage to admit it, especially if they were the minister responsible for sport. They’d fake an obsession with a famous team. He’s different. “I support my local team, Boreham Wood FC,” he says, loyally — who currently plays somewhere in the National League — but says sport is not the bit of the job he loves the most. what? “Arts and culture have always been one of my passions.”
This is an opportunity, since for now the Minister of Culture can be anything that stands in the way of an artistic Armageddon.
When he took the job after last year’s election, he looked like a backwater where he would enjoy free tickets and parties with the sole challenge of stopping more extreme parts of the government from destroying the BBC.
Now Covid has closed galleries and live shows. The titans of the cultural world like the Southbank Centre say they can go bankrupt. Theatres warn that they may never reopen — and the arts community is still waiting to hear if the government will come to the rescue.
Talking to people who run museums and concert halls, I heard the same things: why haven’t we heard from Dowden? Where is the bailout to keep our cultural sector beating the world? Does he realize how catastrophic things are?
“I’m not going to sit back and see our position as a world leader in the arts and culture destroyed,” he said in his first newspaper interview.
He is in the midst of a battle with the Treasury —he calls it “complex discussions” – to come up with a plan to keep the arts sector out of bankruptcy while the Covid rules keep it closed. The deal is almost over. “Of course, I want the money to flow,” he says. “I’m not going to let anyone down.”
“I have always found the Chancellor and his team very committed and understanding to the value of this sector,” he adds. Perhaps. But even if an announcement comes soon, there are going to be some difficult choices to make. “Not everyone is going to be happy with everything that happens. I will have to ask the institutions to make difficult decisions.”
Could this mean choices — such as closing ENO to save the Royal Opera House? The Covid crisis, he says, “is a temporary thing and we don’t want to lose cultural institutions for good.” The arts, he says, are at the heart of London’s “strength, resilience and reputation.” He added: “We would be absolutely crazy to throw it away.”
The arts in Britain did what he was told to do: find commercial income, from things like restaurants on the south shore. Now, it is these organizations that have been the most enterprising that are the hardest hit. Dowden says he’s understanding. “I don’t want it to bounce back on them.” He does not want only those organizations “highly dependent on public money” to survive. But we don’t know yet what he can do to help.
Dowden does not come from a typical Tory background. His father worked in a factory and lost his job at the beginning of the recession of the 1990s. His mother still works at Boots. He went to a suit just outside Watford, in the constituency he now represents, and used to go to London in the school minibus to see the West End shows – “quite accessible” those, he says, like Les Miserables, Blood Brothers and An Inspector Calls.
Sitting in the gods with cheap tickets presented him to the live performance. He even took to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe in a theatre group of young musicians, which took a seat when another production retired. Their show, the Victorian melodrama Murder in the Red Barn, sank without a trace.
He trained as a lawyer, didn’t like it, and ended up working for David Cameron in number 10, where I remember him as one of the most calmly capable people in the building. Others made more noise. He made a difference. But he has done nothing as huge as the battle to save the arts.
He says he is “hopeful” that the rules will loosen to allow galleries and museums to start opening — “I wish we could start opening large galleries from July 4th.” The National Gallery of Canada could be an early example, with a one-way system in place. After that, he wants “a mobile opening of galleries and other cultural institutions that are mainly visual.” He’s in contact by text with the president of the V-A, making plans.
But it’s going to be a lot harder to get performances back in front of the audience any way that pays the bills. He praised Wigmore Hall for bringing live music to the air this month, describing the venue as “that precious and wonderful thing we have in London” – although he says he hasn’t had time to listen to the shows yet. But he accepts a blunt fact: “Something like theatre can’t function properly with the two-metre social distance.”
This means that much of London’s cultural life, from West End shows to pop-up performances, will be left in crisis, perhaps in next year and beyoNd. He says he is proud of the support that the government has provided so far, through things like the leave system — but when it expires in October, what happens then?
He says he has spoken to more than 120 arts institutions to ask them what they need. He set up a cultural working group to make plans – although his highest level was criticized for not representing live music. The working groups that go there, he says. What is clear, he argues, is that “no one in an arts institution wants to be paid to do nothing. They want things to happen again.” Health advice helps film and television work resume, including in Elstree, his constituency. For live shows, he says: “I want to get to the point where they are … “effectively authorized.”
The last thing he saw on stage before the lockdown was Hamilton. What will the stage look like when the performances return? “Of course, we’re not going to have something like what we had before until we’re able to safely lighten social distancing.” He talks about “innovative ideas” such as live or outdoor shows, or using digital technology. “In a very limited number of circumstances, some rooms may be able to operate with very low-budget performance at social distance.”
What about an audience limited to the Last Night of the Balls? “Well who knows? Of course, I’d love that,” he says carefully. He listened to it every year with his grandmother. “I still know by heart all the words of Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia.”
He pulls himself short: “I seem quite back looking,” and adds that he watched Normal People with his wife before going to bed and wants Parasite to be the next movie he sees.
I think it’s Dowden’s credit that he doesn’t cling to the arts to make himself look cool. His tastes are very English but sincere. He says he loves the visual arts, especially Francis Bacon. He stops to explore medieval churches while driving through England. He enjoys reading poetry — Philip Larkin and John Betjeman. Musically, he likes Elgar, Mahler and Wagner. He grimaces when I ask who his favorite pop star was as a teenager – there wasn’t a Morrissey poster on his wall. “My interest would probably be more towards the classic end,” he says. It’s as engaging as his answer on football. He said he used to listen to Pulp a bit – but agrees with me that he wouldn’t be a star on Popmaster on Radio 2.
Meanwhile, he needs to save the arts. He promises that he can – there will be a bailout of some kind, but he is pushing for a long-term deal, while the Treasury is still focused on aid over the next few months. If he keeps his word, the London musicians will play him all the Elgar he wants.