How did Osborne, king of cuts, become the British Museum’s fundraiser-in-chief? | Charlotte Higgins

The former chancellor’s new role is just one example of the merry-go-round of appointments at the top of arts institutions

George Osborne’s appointment as chair of the British Museum trustees has caused an understandable outcry. That the chancellor responsible for a 30% cut over the past decade to its funding should become its leader is a wild irony. And of course it wasn’t just the British Museum that suffered because of him. Osborne’s cuts, when chancellor, hurt theatres, festivals, museums, libraries – because apparently scraped-together thousands from dance companies would, laughably, help salvage public finances in the wake of the banking crisis.

The appointment has been seen, too, in the context of a government consistently in breach of the arm’s-length principle that supposedly protects the arts from direct political interference. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has weighed in on everything to what gets sung at the Last Night of the Proms to the fate of statues, issuing thinly veiled threats to English arts organisations that future funding will depend on adherence to his policy on contested heritage. If you look at the government’s desire to insert former Mail editor Paul Dacre as chair of Ofcom, the appointment of Tory donor Richard Sharp to the chairmanship of the BBC, and the scandalous vetoing of academic Aminul Hoque’s second term on the board of the National Maritime Museum, then it all adds up to a determined drive to stop the lefties having their way with culture.

But this does not quite answer the question of why the board of the British Museum – a group of apparently independent-minded people including Mary Beard, Grayson Perry and Muriel Gray – selected Osborne as their new chair. Because this was not some No 10 stitch-up: the job was advertised in the Guardian and Sunday Times, candidates applied for it and were scrutinised, and the favoured applicant was voted for, unanimously, by the entire board. So what happened?

The reality is that the most important factor in Osborne’s appointment is not politics, but money. So it will be in the appointment of a new chair of the Royal Opera House, for which he was also tipped. The British Museum is planning a huge development project, one that is supposed to fix the ailing building, in all the unglamorous ways that a 3,000-room building with dodgy old electrics needs fixing, prior to a grand redisplay of its entire collection. No budget has been publicly mentioned for this, the Rosetta Project. But the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, talks in terms of the “projet grand Louvre”, which cost around £780m at 1993 prices; or the redevelopment of the Rijksmuseum, which reopened in 2013 having cost €375m (£320m). Osborne’s most important role will be to leverage funds from the government (yes, there is no greater irony) and from private sources, AKA his friends among super-rich bankers and fund managers and hedge funders.

His appointment is an epiphenomenon rather than the result of a conspiracy: the logical consequence of a culture of governance of major arts institutions that, though it certainly leans Tory-wards, goes back way further than the chaotic expostulations of Dowden and co. This culture is hard to define and harder to eradicate. It relates to a narrow understanding of what sort of person might be qualified to undertake a major cultural trusteeship; the actual reality of so doing (unpaid and onerous, the roles automatically rule out those who cannot afford to give up time to them); and a kind of institutional conservatism that can overtake a group of people, though they may be individually progressive.

Those with voices that conflict with the mainstream can struggle to make an impact in such a context. Novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s account of why she resigned as a British Museum trustee in 2019 is as instructive as it is depressing – she experienced, she wrote, a cumulative sense of the museum’s “immovability” on questions such as its sponsorship by BP and the legacies of colonialism. In the end, she felt that the most powerful thing she could do on that board was to leave it.

The combination of desperation for money and the endless reproduction of the same kind of leader has led to a curious situation for the governance of London arts organisations – and it’s very much the opposite of the band of “woke” warriors Dowden claims is in charge of the English arts. The current interim (and former) chair of the Royal Opera House is Simon Robey, founding partner at the bank that Osborne has just joined. He is doing the job because the recently appointed chair at Covent Garden, Carphone Warehouse tycoon David Ross (who “facilitated” the prime minister’s holiday to Mustique in 2019), was persuaded to stay on as chair of the National Portrait Gallery. Robey’s former-banker wife, Victoria Robey, once married to Sharp, is the chair of the London Philharmonic. Ross took over the Royal Opera House from interim chair Suzanne Heywood, widow of the late cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood. She is a managing director of Exor, an entity controlled by the Agnelli family that owns companies from Ferrari to Juventus FC. An advisory committee for Exor is chaired by Osborne.

On it goes. It is tentacular, incestuous. It is also, complicatedly, public-spirited; no one is forcing these wealthy people to volunteer their energies to public organisations. There is some poetic justice in the fact that Osborne will be judged on his ability to raise millions of pounds, perhaps hundreds of millions, for the British Museum. Between gritted teeth, and for the museum’s sake, I suppose I hope he manages it.

  • Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer


Charlotte Higgins

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