Government, Culture and Access: Where Did you Go, André Malraux?

The French Ministry of Culture is celebrating its 60th birthday. In its day, it was a rarity – indeed, France was the first major democracy to create one. Sixty years on, it is almost the idea of not having a ministry of culture, with a minister, that seems odd.

Clearly governments were supporting different types of culture previously in various ways. Through direct patronage, through support for preservation, and through arts education, there was help. But it rarely came with the prestige of a full ministerial position.

The French Ministry’s creation came soon after General de Gaulle came to power. He was committed to promoting France and its production internationally, and in doing so, underlined that culture was a major policy and political issue.

In André Malraux, a novelist and resistance hero – the first Minister for Culture – the General found a man who believed in exposing people to great works, as well as promoting the idea of the writers of today building on the work of those who came before, through a ‘library of the imagination’.

In his own words, the new ministry’s role was to ‘make accessible the chief works of humanity, and first of all of France, to the greatest possible number of French citizens, to ensure a wider audience for our cultural heritage, and to favour the creation of art and of the spirit that enrich it’ (Founding Decree of 1959).


1959: Access First

Malraux’s statement is significant. He clearly places access first among the goals of his ministry.

Clearly this was a personal passion. But it also recalls one of the core missions of government – to look after the wellbeing of the population as a whole.

Obviously, Malraux doesn’t only talk about access. Heritage – and implicitly its preservation – as well as support for creativity are also there, as key factors underpinning access. But access definitively comes first.

This is a view that will echo with libraries, who share a dedication to access, not at the expense of creativity or heritage, but in order to support it.

This is because access allows for the emergence of new readers, new buyers, and new creators. But more than this, a focus on access fundamentally legitimises any government’s investment in the field of culture in the first place by delivering on the duty under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to enable everyone to participate in the cultural life of the community.

In other words, it fulfils two of the broader roles of government – to act where the market will not in the interests of future prosperity, and to deliver on fundamental rights for all.

This is clearly not just the something that libraries do. Malraux also talked about the imaginary museum, or the museum with out walls. All culture, he argued, had a vocation to be available to all.


2019: Access Last?

Sixty years on, and it is noticeable that the order of priorities chosen by the ministry has changed.  In the dossier prepared by the Ministry for its own birthday, it sets out its work in the following terms:

‘For 60 years, the Ministry of Culture has protected and supported heritage, stimulated creativity, promoted cultural diversity, and favoured the access of all to art and culture’.

Clearly most of the ideas are the same – around heritage, creativity and access, with diversity (thankfully) now added. However, the order is different. Heritage comes first, support for creative industries second, and access only last.

In effect, the focus seems to have moved from the people to the producers, from demand to supply.

This is only confirmed in the ministry’s own summary of its work to promote access, which, instead of talking about ensuring that everyone has the possibility to enjoy culture (itself a human right), focuses rather again on preserving heritage and supporting creation.

Clearly, libraries will not be against protecting heritage and promoting creativity – these are things libraries do on a daily basis, and a core part of their mission. However, they are primarily means to an end – democratic access to information and culture for all. Losing sight of this is a cause for concern.


Why this apparent shift has happened is open for discussion. It certainly seems to bring the risk of forgetting the key message of Malraux – that the job of governments when they get involved in culture must first and foremost be to ensure that it is democratic and open to all. It is a message worth remembering.