Alex Needham 

Jeremy Hunt: Can’t stop, off to Swan Lake

What has the Leveson inquiry revealed about Jeremy Hunt's taste in art? Did he get to Take That? And how big an N-Dubz fan is he? By Alex Needham
  
  

On Monday, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt tweeted "With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come (Gratiano, Merchant of Venice)", a celebratory quote for Shakespeare's birthday. On Tuesday, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?" might have seemed more appropriate.

Perhaps surprisingly, only two of the emails released by the Leveson inquiry this week indicated that Hunt had an interest in the arts beyond the Murdochs' BSkyB takeover bid. One, from News Corp's public affairs executive Frédéric Michel to James Murdoch, reported grabbing the culture secretary "before he went in to see Swan Lake" to discuss the bid. In another, sent later that year, Michel plaintively asked Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith whether Ed Vaizey's refusal to meet News Corp while the deal was going through meant that "you and Jeremy will not be coming to Take That on 4 July".

Between them, Take That and Swan Lake suggest that Hunt has fairly mainstream tastes – and in fact, according to the Royal Opera House, the ballet was an unusual outing; a spokesperson confirms that Hunt is not a regular. Did he or did he not see Take That at Wembley on 4 July? The band's press officer says he has no idea: "He didn't get tickets from us."

In the five years since he was made shadow culture secretary, and then culture secretary when the Tories won the 2010 election, Hunt has given the impression of someone who enjoys the arts without having a deep knowledge of – or passion for – them. To be fair, though, he seems more culturally immersed than his opposite number Harriet Harman, or the shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis.

At a meeting of the rightwing culture thinktank New Culture Forum last year, Hunt said his major policy for the arts was to encourage philanthropy. But this approach ran into trouble earlier this month, after tax relief for philanthropists was restricted in the budget. Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, said the Treasury had "completely pulled the carpet from under" Hunt's attempts to encourage rich donors.

The culture secretary appears to have an interest in pop music beyond Take That: a journalist who interviewed him for the London Evening Standard last summer (shortly before the BSkyB bid failed) reported seeing a biography of N-Dubz on Hunt's desk. "Well, Tulisa is going to be gracing our screens, isn't she?" he said, of the N-Dubz member who went on to be an X Factor judge. In 2010, he revealed his classical music preferences to Guardian arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins: "I am still early Schoenberg rather than late." He also enjoys Tchaikovsky, attending Opera North's production of The Queen of Spades and ENO's Eugene Onegin, directed by Deborah Warner.

Russian literature seems to resonate with Hunt, too. He admires the poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who were dissidents during the Soviet regime, and quoted a poem by Mandelstam in his first speech as culture secretary. Then there's his passion for Japanese culture; Hunt speaks the language after teaching English there.

Like other Tories, Hunt has spoken warmly about their star signing, Tracey Emin. He attended the private view of her retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, and in his first keynote speech on the arts, cited her grafitto "I need art like I need God", sprayed on the sea wall at Margate. "Sometimes graffiti – however objectionable and anti-social it is in principle – can be very thought-provoking," he noted.

But it was culture minister Ed Vaizey rather than Hunt who schmoozed Emin. In 2009, the Guido Fawkes website reported that the pair enjoyed a three-hour lunch at Scott's of Mayfair, and she has also dined with David Cameron at No 10. All this paid off when Emin declared her support for the Tories last year: "At the moment there is a government that actually likes the arts, appreciates the arts and appreciates culture."

Hunt is an admirer of Grayson Perry, too. He went to Perry's recent exhibition at the British Museum, and has a print by the artist on his office wall – alongside a photograph of him meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles. He picked another contemporary work from the Government Art Collection for his office in 2010: a Mark Wallinger painting from a 1990s series called Brown's (42 sets of silks worn by jockeys riding for racehorse owners called Brown). Alerted to this by the Guardian, the Labour-supporting Wallinger groaned: "That is a shocker. As an artist, it's very hard to vet your patrons – they generally drift rightwards as they get older anyway."

Hunt's trips to the theatre point to a taste divided between blockbusters and political theatre. He saw David Hare's indictment of New Labour, Gethsemane, as well as Lucy Prebble's Enron; the latter might have proved an uncomfortable night for a Tory, though Hunt told New Culture Forum he considered it a prime example of why theatre should keep its subsidy. He has also seen hits such as War Horse, at the National Theatre, and Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, which he attended on its West End transfer in the run-up to the election.

Hunt's most recent direct intervention in the arts world was his decision to fire Liz Forgan as chair of Arts Council England, saying that a new appointment was necessary in order to encourage greater private giving to the arts, and to help the arts sector "make the most of technological changes". John Tusa, Veronica Wadley and Peter Bazalgette have been mooted as possible successors. Whether Hunt will still be around to appoint one of them seems doubtful – unless, in the words of Take That, everything changes.

Correction 26/4/12. The article suggested that Hunt's opposite number is Labour's Dan Jarvis. In fact Jarvis is shadow culture minister. The shadow culture secretary is Harriet Harman. This has been corrected.

 

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