The Culture Department's Taskforce is riding to the rescue: but who are they? Robert Hewison takes a wry look at their credentials.
Waving a new logo that looks like a wooden-legged ballerina entertaining a grinning Boris Johnson, the Magnificent Eight – sorry, “the taskforce responsible for the recreation and leisure sectors” (never use the word culture if you not carrying a gun) – are riding to the rescue of the arts.
Urging them on is Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, whose title exceeds the number of qualifications he holds for the post, and whose appearances at No.10’s Covid-19 press briefings reveal him to have the charisma of a wet sock. Dowden has chosen eight “of the brightest and best” to develop “blueprints for how and when closed businesses and venues can reopen safely”. They will do such useful things as “develop creative solutions, including digital solutions, to drive the return of sectors while maintaining consistency with medical advice; agreeing and ensuring alignment of all relevant sectoral guidance; providing key sector sectors stakeholders direct access to ministers”. Just the thing to get the creative juices flowing, no?
The Taskforce will be “building on existing channels of government support”, most of which we know are time limited, and there no commitments to extra money, certainly not the sort of money the arts – sorry, recreation and leisure sectors – are crying out for.
So who are the Magnificent Eight? Judging from his DCMS mug shot, Neil Mendoza has more hair than Yul Bryner, and appears to be channelling James Bond, his background bookshelves no doubt obscured for security reasons. He has a title almost as long as Dowden’s: Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal. Why not simply call him Renaissance Man? He is as close to the DCMS without belonging to it, as a non-executive director. As Chair of the Landmark Trust, a former Commissioner at Historic England, and responsible for a career building businesses in the “creative and finance sectors” he clearly understand the heritage industry, though his 2017 Review of Museums in England disappeared without trace.
Riding beside him is the eagle-eyed sharp-shooter Sir Nichola Serota, maker of Tate Britain. A wily counsellor, but a little slow on the draw now his hands are tied by his chairmanship of Arts Council England. We can expect explosions from the Conservative peer Michael Grade, whose experience as a film and television mogul will give him a fine understanding of the needs of community arts. We can expect Mark Cornell, a former chief executive officer of Krug Champagne, to put some sparkle into the taskforce’s weekly meetings. Another Renaissance Man, he has worked for Sotheby’s and is now CEO of the Ambassador Theatre Group. No one seems to have heard of Edward Mellors (except possibly in Dubai). His events company produces “high profile city transformations”. That is to say, Christmas markets.
Riding side-saddle, there is one genuine artist on the team – though this may be a bit of Hollywood casting – Tamara Rojo, dancer and artistic director of English National Ballet. She joins the posse with Alex Scott, ex-footballer and the first female to report on the Men’s World Cup for the BBC. Finally, there is crossbench peer Martha Lane Fox, Digital Champion for the UK between 2009 and 2013. She is currently chair of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Clearly, she has been appointed for her ability to tell the difference between official fiction and the brutal facts of the damage being done to the arts.
That the government appears to be waking up to the long-term damage that the arts – especially the performing arts – are already experiencing, as not just productions but companies and theatres fold, is welcome. But is this hurriedly assembled Taskforce capable of seizing the reins and stopping the arts going over a cliff? Apart from a certain closeness to government, what do most, or any, of these people have in common? Commercial interests appear to outweigh cultural expertise.
Dimly, in the distance, I hear the faltering hooves of another lost patrol: the Millennium Commission, whose membership was as disparate and disconnected as is this Taskforce, and as closely tied to government. And what was the Millennium Commission’s greatest achievement?
The Millennium Dome.
Robert Hewison is a Cultural Historian