Lord Parkinson gave the keynote speech at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Impact Acceleration Award (IAA) policy meeting.

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay

Good morning, and thank you to Drs. Justin Davies, Prof. Alex Marr, and to the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the University of Cambridge for arranging our discussion today, and for inviting me to join you. I am honoured to be taking part in what I know will be a very thought-provoking and timely event, in such distinguished company. 

It is a pleasure to begin by thanking His Excellency the Belgian Ambassador, both for hosting yesterday’s dinner at Trinity Hall and for his stalwart support for this and other initiatives to promote the wider and deeper appreciation of art internationally. 

Bruno, the way that you have placed art and culture at the very centre of your posting to the Court of St. James has, I know, been deeply appreciated by the academics, curators, gallerists and others who have benefited from it – as well as the many British and Belgian citizens whose understanding of the rich and intertwined history of our nations in this important area has been enriched by it. You will be missed here in the UK – and will, I hope, continue to come and visit us after you take up your new posting.

We have been brought together today to discuss the future for UK art history – a topic which is close to my heart, as well as part of my Ministerial brief. I read history here at Emmanuel at the turn of the century – and my perspective on the topics we will cover today is inescapably shaped by my background as a state school boy who was very proud to come to study here in Cambridge, and as an arts graduate with a keen interest in what we owe to the past.

When I was here twenty years ago, considering what I might do with my history degree, the joke we repeated was that ‘There’s no future in history’. Happily, my experience has suggested quite the opposite. I have had the pleasure of using – and building on – my history degree in everything I’ve done over the last two decades, not just in my role as Minister for Arts & Heritage.

But it has been a particular privilege to hold that brief over the past two years, and to work with many art historians and experts in that capacity. I am always struck by the passion, expertise, and generosity of spirit with which you approach your work. It is this enthusiasm – and discussions like today’s – that make me optimistic for the future of the discipline, and of the art sector more widely. And I hope that spirit of optimism will infuse much of what I want to say today.

The teachings of art history encourage us to examine, value and protect our cultural heritage – principles underpinning so much of the work my Department undertakes in Government. Beyond that, they encourage us to be critical and to analyse what we see and hear in the world around us.

Through the quirks of Departmental responsibilities, I had the task of steering the Online Safety Act through the House of Lords last year. You might think this somewhat removed from the work of the Arts Minister; far from it. In the Lords, we offer a pretty good example of inter-disciplinary working – as the debates we had on that Bill showed. Because, in this age of ‘deep fakes’ and ‘disinformation’, the ability to unpick the true meaning and context behind the images which are placed before us is absolutely vital.

At some point in the next few months, there will be a general election. Next month sees elections to the European Parliament across 27 member states. In November, the United States of America will choose their next President. And we are currently halfway through the extraordinary, six-week election in India involving some 970 million voters – more than 10 per cent of the world’s population. 

In total, more than four billion people in over 50 countries will go to the polls this year – making 2024 arguably the biggest year yet in the history of democracy. But they exercise that precious right at a time when those who seek to subvert it are more sophisticated than ever before.

In this context, the skills of the art historian are more valuable and more urgent than ever – and skills it is vitally important that we pass on to future generations.

Last year, I attended an event at the Royal Academy to learn more about Art UK’s initiative, The Superpower of Looking. Funded by the Freelands Foundation, this brilliant scheme aims to teach visual literacy skills to primary-age children. 

Using free teaching resources, and drawing on historical and contemporary artworks, it gives children an essential ‘superpower’ for the epoch in which they will be growing up: the ability truly to ‘see’ – to observe, analyse, question, and interpret the images before them. It seeks to equip children not just with a love of art, but with vital, life-long skills – enabling them to become critical thinkers and better equipped for the world around them.

Over the last few months, my Department has also been working with the Department for Education to develop a new Cultural Education Plan to deliver ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills such as these. That plan will set out a long-term approach to ensure that all children and young people have access to high-quality cultural education and creativity, both in and out of school. It will focus on promoting the social value of cultural education, and – on a practical level – support career pathways into the arts and cultural sectors. 

The Plan will build on our existing work to strengthen talent pipelines into these growing sectors – one of the five priority areas of the economy as set out by the Chancellor. This includes our Creative Industries Sector Vision, the National Plan for Music Education, and our Creative Careers Programme. And it will seek to amplify the brilliant work the sector is already doing in this area. Just yesterday, I had the pleasure of hopping onboard the ‘Mobile Museum’, a joint enterprise between Art Explora and Tate, emulating a brilliant scheme which has run in France for the last 14 years. It’s taken works of art by Vanessa Bell, David Hockney, and Cornelia Parker to schools across the Midlands and the North West of England – reaching children who have never previously visited a museum or gallery. It’s a really simple but powerful way of letting them know that our national collection is for them, too.

In the UK, we have a truly dynamic visual arts scene, in no small part thanks to the unique heritage and global reach of our highly successful art market – the third biggest in the world. Through exhibitions, art fairs and other events, that market promotes our extraordinary creativity to audiences around the world – and is enriched by the great creativity of others. 

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

That achievement is hard won – and the Government is working hard to ensure that we nurture and maintain our reputation as a global leader in arts and culture. With the Arts Council, we are streamlining the export licensing process through the development of a digital system, while the Treasury and HMRC are working to simplify the Temporary Admission procedure, making it more accessible and therefore more beneficial to people, businesses, and specific sectors. Art market professionals have helped us every step of the way, actively engaging with these proposed developments, and providing invaluable feedback and expertise. 

In addition to being a global marketplace for some of the world’s most important artworks, antiques and antiquities, we also have an extraordinary wealth of museums and galleries across the UK.

I couldn’t speak at Trinity Hall without paying tribute to Richard Fitzwilliam, a graduate of this college and benefactor of the Fitzwilliam Museum – nor fail to remind you that, since last Friday, it has Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars on loan from the National Gallery as part of the gallery’s bicentennial celebrations – the first time it has left the National Gallery since it was acquired in 1874. (When it came up for auction at Christie’s, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, attended the sale in person, so determined was he to acquire it for the nation.)

The support given by academics and the art market helps museums across the country transform their collections and the experiences they can offer to the public – many of them for free. 

My Department also relies on academics and market professionals to advise on cultural property matters – and I want to acknowledge that work, and the great value we attach to it. 

Like the works of art on their walls, our brilliant galleries and museums are staffed by people drawn from all over the world. 

We are so proud they have chosen to work or study here in Britain – and determined to continue to facilitate that international exchange at every level.

We want the people who write the next chapter of our great institutions to be drawn from the widest possible range of backgrounds – both here in the UK, and from around the world – so I look forward to our discussions today on how we can make sure the UK can continue to attract people from across the globe, and to unleash the potential of the too many young people — particularly in our state schools — who have not yet been given the life-changing opportunity to study art history. 

Perhaps the most viewed work of art at this university is one which has only been here some sixty years – Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi, which stands as the altarpiece in King’s College Chapel.

That great Flemish artist is a fitting person with whom to conclude my remarks – not just in homage to our distinguished Belgian participants today, but because of the optimistic lesson he offers. Celebrated across the continent, Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned – and knighted – by King Charles I, and came to Cambridge nearly 400 years ago to receive his honorary doctorate. His work continues to dazzle visitors from across the world, here in Cambridge, and in the Banqueting House on Whitehall.

For all the vicissitudes of geopolitics, he stands as a reminder of the universal power of great art, and our long and enriching tradition of sharing it. Long may that continue.

Published 15 May 2024