Culture secretary blasted for 'photo opp' in Portsmouth without listening to arts bosses

LEADING figures in the arts have criticised the culture secretary after he posed for a photo in Portsmouth at a ‘closed’ event but did not invite them in.

By Ben Fishwick & Richard Lemmer
Friday, 25th June 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Friday, 25th June 2021, 5:08 pm
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden, left, chats with an historical interpreter during a visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to announce how the final £300 million of the Culture Recovery Fund will be spent. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden, left, chats with an historical interpreter during a visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to announce how the final £300 million of the Culture Recovery Fund will be spent. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Oliver Dowden used the impressive HMS Victory as a backdrop for an announcement inviting bids for the final £300m of the Cultural Recovery Fund.

But local theatre and venue bosses - who hope to bid for the cash - were not invited and have accused Mr Dowden of missing an opportunity to hear from them.

Kings Theatre chief executive Paul Woolf told The News: ‘It's a great big pity that he didn't tell anyone he was coming - we could've had a nice little discussion.

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Culture secretary Oliver Dowden, right, with Andrew Baines, deputy executive director of museum operations at The National Museum of the Royal Navy walk underneath HMS Victory during a visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard to announce how the final £300 million of the Culture Recovery Fund will be spent. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

‘I've been emailing and texting him - it would've been really nice to know, we could've set up a chinwag at the dockyard or at the Kings.

‘There's no point in visiting a city out of London just for a photoshoot.

‘If you're coming all this way, you want to take the opportunity.’

Mr Woolf added: ‘It's a pity they don't do that - they seem impervious to listening, they listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber - he's one person.

‘My voice is as valid when it comes to theatres when it comes to Andrew Lloyd Webber.’

The Southsea theatre won £350,000 in the first round and around £170,000 in the second - but has yet to receive the cash in full.

Some 90 per cent of the first tranche has been received, but less than a third of the second has been paid.

‘This money is badly needed,' Mr Woolf said. 'Those grants are to support losses and to cover the costs - it's not free money.

‘For the CRF you have to bid for the money and have to show you need it and what you're going to do with it.

‘When there's delay you've still got the cost.'

He added he welcomes the announcement of the third tranche and hopes the Kings will be eligible.

Figures from the Mary Rose Museum and the National Museum of the Royal Navy did speak with Mr Dowden – but other cultural leaders were left in the cold.

The event yesterday was described by the culture department as a ‘closed’ visit and The News was not invited.

But a Press Association photographer was present to take the images later distributed to the press.

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Andy Grays, from the Guildhall Trust, said he believes the sector’s case has been made to Mr Dowden but still would’ve asked him to listen further.

Venues are working on the premise that full reopenings can happen come autumn, allowing all to recoup losses.

He said: ‘The question to him would be if not, is the suggestion that this particular tranche of money is actually another plaster?’

Mr Grays added: ‘The CRF is fantastic but it’s not the answer to the sector.

‘The sector actually needs to reopen. If the Guildhall Trust was to receive £300,000-£400,000 that would be fantastic for the next few months but the fact is it needs to reopen.’

He wants the results from test pilot live gigs to be published, along with clarity over whether social distancing requirements will endure.

Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan said the sector still faces ‘serious challenges’.

He said: ‘I’m really pleased that the culture secretary has finally accepted my invitation to see our city’s vibrant cultural offer.

‘I welcome the funding our Historic Dockyard’s attractions have received as part of the Cultural Recovery Fund, but the sector as a whole continues to face a number of serious challenges.

‘Many organisations face another month of closure due to the government’s chaotic border policy and ministers refuse to come clean on the results of the Events Research Programme, meaning many events looking to bounce back this year face crippling uncertainty.

‘Photo opps and victory laps are all well and good, but Portsmouth’s cultural assets need comprehensive support to see them through their greatest challenge in living memory.’

Some £1.2m has been given from the CRF to support both the Mary Rose and the boatbuilding academy on site.

The funding follows the Mary Rose losing 80 per cent of its income due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Matthew Sheldon, executive director of museum operations at the National Museum of the Royal Navy said he was delighted to give Mr Dowden a ‘whirlwind tour of HMS Victory’.

He added: ‘It was a really valuable opportunity to demonstrate the importance of heritage and museums to the cultural mix of the country and to thank DCMS for their support.

‘Whilst the National Museum of the Royal Navy isn't directly eligible for the Culture Recovery Fund, we wish every success in their bid to the Mary Rose - our operating partners at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.’

MP Mr Morgan was also hopeful a government-backed insurance scheme for festivals might be announced – something the industry is calling for.

He said: ‘I have been calling for this since March to support our City, but Ministers have dragged their feet. Now the delays to the easing of restrictions threaten the recovery of our vibrant cultural sector which has been heavily impacted by the pandemic.

‘Large events and festivals will struggle to endure another lost summer. Ministers must act now to secure jobs, promote local economic growth and help our city bounce back.’

The CRF is handing out £2bn to the cultural sector after the Covid-19 pandemic decimated income.

Some £1.2bn has been handed out, including to more than 5,000 organisations in England.

The third round of funding will be to ‘support major programmes of work and repair grants for heritage at risk’.

In a statement Mr Dowden said: ‘Our record breaking Culture Recovery Fund has already helped thousands of organisations across the country to survive and protected hundreds of thousands of jobs.

‘Now, as we look forward to full reopening, this funding shows our commitment to stand behind culture and heritage all the way through the pandemic.

‘This round of funding will provide a further boost to help organisations build back better and ensure we can support more of those in need - safeguarding our precious culture and heritage, and the jobs this supports.’

News’ view on ‘closed’ visit

BURNING questions remain over the government's support of Britain's cultural sector.

None more so than in Portsmouth where theatres, festivals and museums are desperately trying to get back on a stable footing from repeated lockdowns.

This week Victorious Festival made its latest announcement about its line-up - an indication the city’s premiere festival is gearing up full speed ahead for it to take place.

But that doesn't stop queries over why the government won't act with an insurance scheme that will help revellers and festival businesses alike if the worst happens.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden could have taken a few minutes to answer questions from The News during his visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard on Thursday.

Instead the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport didn't even invite this newspaper to its announcement in the heart of the city.

This is a snub to the people in this city for whom we proudly - on a daily basis - hold power to account.

If Mr Dowden is running scared from this city's local newspaper, what has he got to hide?

It's a question we can add to our list.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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