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22 July 2010

Damien Hirst for culture minister?

Should the Department for Culture, Media and Sport be hiring more artists?

By Mike Sweeney

Damien Hirst as minister for culture? Mike Leigh as his deputy? Elton John as head of the Arts Council? It sounds unlikely, but perhaps we could learn a thing or two from our Brazilian friends.

Yesterday the Southbank gave its Purcell Room stage to two of Brazil’s most prominent artists — the poet T T Catalão and the actor and director Tadeu di Pietro — not to talk about their work, but to discuss funding, in their respective capacities as secretary for culture and citizenship and co-director of the National Foundation for Arts.

As part of Festival Brazil, a summer-long series of events celebrating Brazilian culture, the pair were in discussion with Alan Davey, head of the Arts Council for England, which is expecting a heavy cut in its funding. Catalão said the appointment of practising artists to ministerial positions has helped steer resources in the right direction and foster a better relationship between emerging artists and the state.

“The ministry of culture [in Brazil] has shone in its ability to debureaucratise funding for the arts,” he told an audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

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What we have achieved is a new relationship between the individual [artist] and the state, in which professional artists are encouraged to work within Points of Culture [state-funded arts centres].

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We know to let go of control and trust artists and communities . . . [and] we measure success by their “multiplier effect”, how they are influencing other centres for culture and how they are helping local people.

Davey said that there was much to be learned from the way Brazil has supported its artists:

In Britain artists have become marginalised from civic political life . . . We [the Arts Council] already employ some practising artists, but there is a reticence here about cultural identity and nationhood. We need to talk more openly about culture and politics and citizenship and the links between them.

Perhaps culture can help us realise the “big society”.