Lord Parkinson speech at the Annual Banquet of the Worshipful Company of Arts Scholars

Lord Parkinson addressed the Annual Banquet of the Worshipful Company of Arts Scholars to champion the arts and heritage sector

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay

It is a great pleasure – and honour – to be with you this evening, celebrating one of the newest livery companies, at the home of one of the oldest.

Although you certainly count as new by the standards of the Livery Companies, you are already firmly established.  Next month marks ten years since you achieved Livery status – and I have been pleased to witness numerous examples of the Company’s work and generosity in my two and a bit years as Minister for Arts and Heritage.

I saw a shining example – quite literally – just a few days ago at the London Art Fair, where I witnessed Simon Bussy’s painting of Mansion House, brilliantly restored and shining brightly again thanks to the conservation you enabled through your partnership with the Association of Independent Museums.

This splendid painting – of a scene well known to every Lord Mayor – used to hang in the library at Charleston, the Sussex retreat of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, great friends and admirers of Bussy. 

I am delighted to say that the painting will return to Charleston this spring, where I hope you will get the chance to see it in its renewed glory.

I was an admirer of the Bloomsbury Set before I became Arts Minister – but they have loomed larger in my Ministerial life than I expected. I have a painting by Duncan Grant on the walls of my office – one of eighteen shared with visitors to Government buildings across the world through the Government Art Collection. 

His work also provided a surprising ice-breaker when I was first appointed as Minister. 

Among the most joyful things which cross my desk are the applications for works of art or cultural gifts to be accepted for the nation in lieu of tax. They are always fascinating reading – and, unlike most Ministerial submissions, beautifully illustrated.

The first case I received was for a collection of works by Duncan Grant which had been kept secret for many years – 422 erotic sketches. 

As the note which Grant left with them explained, ‘These drawings are very private’.  Whether to spare my blushes, or in case I opened the submission on the bus home, my new Private Secretary had covered the more sensitive parts with some tactfully-placed Post-It Notes.

After cautious but careful inspection, I agreed that they should indeed be accepted for the nation – and was delighted to see them in the flesh (so to speak) eighteen months later at a brilliantly-curated exhibition at Charleston – a visit which proved quite the challenge for the official photographer.

So being Arts Minister is not without its hazards. Like this worshipful company, the office is a relatively young one – Jennie Lee, the first Minister for the Arts, was appointed sixty years ago. In the years since then, some have questioned what it’s for – or even whether it is needed at all. 

In a 1979 speech to the Centre for Policy Studies, the novelist Kingsley Amis argued – only semi-polemically – that the best policy for the arts is to have no policy at all.

‘Think of a Minister for the Arts with no functions at all,’ he said: ‘his title a pure honorific like Warden of the Cinque Ports, a symbolic figure to be seen only at first nights or private views.’

Now, it is certainly a good discipline for any Minister to consider whether his or her job is really necessary and how to minimise interference in the lives of people whose area of work they may receive. For me it was quite an existential challenge. 

Fortunately, Master, your kind invitation to join you this evening provides the perfect rejoinder. For, while we have enjoyed a delicious and convivial dinner in magnificent surroundings, I know that the Arts Scholars are about far more than splendid evenings like this – and that you work tirelessly throughout the year to address many of the same things that we do in Government:

To champion and sustain the world-class arts sector we are proud to have here in the UK; to support the growth and diversity of the professions which underpin it through education, opportunity, and career development; to support the brilliant work of museums and other cultural organisations here in London and across the UK; to help preserve our heritage for future generations; and to ensure that everyone can enjoy the life-changing benefits of the arts – and play their full part in enriching the cultural life of our nation.

For the past few months, a panel of experts jointly appointed by me and by Ministers at the Department for Education have been working to shape a new Cultural Education Plan: promoting the social value of cultural education, and making sure all children have access to high-quality provision; strengthening the talent pipelines into our cultural and creative sectors; and unlocking a lifetime of opportunity for the next generation.

That plan will build on significant work already underway – such as the National Plan for Music Education, accompanied by £25 million to provide musical instruments in schools, and the Heritage Schools Programme, which works with teachers to connect students with the past all around them.

Along with the scholarships, internships, and teaching resources you so generously provide, I hope this will help more people from all backgrounds to pursue a career as arts scholars.

And we need to harness their full talents to maintain the dynamic and successful sector of which we are all so proud.

The UK’s art market is the second biggest in the world – behind only the United States, and larger than all of the European Union put together. But that is an achievement hard won by our brilliant arts professionals – who face increasing competition from across the world.

The UK is proudly a global marketplace for some of the world’s most important artworks, antiques, and antiquities. 

Our commercial galleries and dealers play a vital role in cultivating the careers of the UK’s visual artists. 

That’s why London has the greatest concentration of artists of any city anywhere in the world – and why so many other towns and cities across the country are similarly fizzing with artistic talent.  

I’m proud that the Government Art Collection is helping to show off some of the talent from my own native city of Newcastle, by bringing artworks from the Laing Art Gallery to hang in 10 Downing Street through its ‘Museum in Residence’ scheme. I’m looking forward to celebrating that partnership in Number 10 tomorrow.

Before I do, I will be joining many from Westminster and the arts world to celebrate the life of Peter Brooke, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville – a founding Liveryman of this company, and former Secretary of State for National Heritage.

I was pleased to learn just now that the badger – or brock – crest atop your coat of arms is in tribute to him.

As Lord Brooke – and all those who have had the privilege of working at our Department in its various guises – have known, we rely on the expertise of the many market professionals who advise us on cultural property matters – so I am glad to have this opportunity to acknowledge their work and the value we attach to it.  

I know that steps to streamline customs processes are keenly anticipated. 

We want to have the world’s most effective border – and I am grateful to all those who have made time to engage with our officials on the development of the new Single Trade Window. 

Progress is also being made on simplifying the Temporary Admission procedure, which we know is important to those who trade internationally. 

We agree there is scope to make the procedure more accessible – so will be engaging further with the sector on potential changes in the coming weeks.

I could not stand in Goldsmiths’ Hall without mentioning the Cheapside Hoard – the greatest single collection of Elizabethan and Stuart jewellery in the world, discovered on Goldsmiths’ Company land in 1912.

For the past quarter of a century, such finds have been covered by the Treasure Act, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme – so generously supported by the Arts Scholars in memory of your Past Master Geoff Egan. 

Its latest report was published last week, detailing the many fascinating objects which were found, reported, and now located in museums across the country for all to enjoy.  

These include an intriguing carved bone rosary bead from the fifteenth century found by a mud-larker on the Thames, and a stunningly beautiful gold dress fastener dating from 1000 BC.

As a historian and as a Minister, it was with real pride that I took through Parliament changes to the definition of ‘treasure’ last year.  

Broadening the definition means that we can look forward to even more artefacts, hidden for generations, being seen by the public in museums across the country. 

Just over a year ago, on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, I took the opportunity to reflect on the effectiveness of the Criteria which are used to designate our national treasures. 

Over the last seven decades, the Waverley Criteria have saved many hundreds of important works for the nation. I wanted to ensure that they remain relevant and effective for the next seven years and beyond.

After careful consideration with those closest to the process, I plan to introduce some small changes which will provide further clarity on how certain aspects of the process work, and strengthen procedures overall.  

But I was pleased that the resounding message was of continuing and widespread support for the Waverley Criteria themselves. 

And, of course, I cannot mention the saving of national treasures without touching on the sensational acquisition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s ‘Portrait of Mai’ by the National Portrait Gallery. 

The campaign to save it benefited from the extraordinary generosity of the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, private individuals, and members of the public – and it relied on a truly innovative and exciting partnership between the National Portrait Gallery and the Getty in Los Angeles – which will mean it can be enjoyed by people across the UK, and far beyond. 

Omai was the most famous portrait of its time. It is now, rightly, a show-stopper at the brilliantly refurbished gallery. I am delighted that it was named Apollo magazine’s Acquisition of the Year.

So I end as I started, by paying tribute to the generosity and dedication of our experts and scholars, who do so much to promote and protect our arts and heritage for future generations.

It is therefore a great honour to propose a toast: 

‘To the Worshipful Company of Arts Scholars’.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay