‘Fighting for culture, not culture wars’: new Labour culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire addresses the art world


Thangam Debbonaire, the newly appointed UK shadow culture secretary, told an audience at the Art Business Conference in London (12 September) that a Labour government will put the creative arts at the heart of the school curriculum. “What matters is that cultural education starts as young as possible,” she said at a talk with The Art Newspaper‘s editor, Alison Cole, asking: “Where is the next generation of artists going to come from?” She also stressed the “joy” the arts bring as well as how vital they are to the country’s economy.

Debbonaire was appointed the UK’s shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport as part of a reshuffle carried out earlier this month by Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour party. Prior to becoming an MP, Debbonaire was a professional cellist, revealing that she is part of a musical “parliamentary quartet” known as the Statutory Instruments, which includes the broadcaster Cathy Newman and Emily Benn, a councillor in the City of London.

In a comment piece for The Art Newspaper earlier this year, the former shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, wrote that “creative subjects have been squeezed out of the curriculum, with philistine Ministers devaluing their importance”. According to the Guardian, the number of students taking arts GCSEs has fallen by 40% since 2010. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was contacted for comment. In a direct swap, Powell took Debbonaire’s role of shadow leader of the Commons.

Debbonaire said at the conference that “access and excellence have been posted as binary opposites and they’re not”. Contributing to the economy via the arts is not “dirty, it’s a great thing … I will always champion London but I want a lad in Wigan to [be able] to work in the creative industries”. She also highlighted the achievements of Jennie Lee, the late legendary Labour minister for the arts who published the key white paper “A Policy for the Arts” in 1965 and was “instrumental in the foundation of the Open University”, according to the university’s website.

Debbonaire also railed against the Conservative government, saying that the current administration is not “fighting for culture, but fighting culture wars”, and said that “a secretary of state writing to museum directors is monstrous” (in 2020, the then culture secretary Oliver Dowden told institutions they should be more “commercially minded”).

The Art Newspaper is a media partner to the Art Business Conference, which is organised by Art Market Minds


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