The view of Europe from our Third World window

AI PROFILE    Kate Arthurs, director arts, British Council

The British Council is renowned for its cultural embassy to the Third World, but Kate Arthurs, the British Council’s new director arts, now finds herself programming from a prospective post-Brexit Third World country with a new challenge – Europe.

To borrow from a well-known ad, the British Council (BC) gets to places other international agencies cannot reach. It is working in Yemen, in Venezuela, and is even involved with partners in Syria, helping to restore some of the historic architecture of its war-torn cities. And there are patient hopes of re-establishing operations in Russia where the BC Moscow office was closed in March when 23 British Embassy personnel were also expelled.

Culture is the United Kingdom’s uniquely powerful soft dynamo in its international presence. When politics fails, as it so often seems to now, culture is the “communicating agent because people will trust it like they cannot trust anything else” says Kate Arthurs, operating quietly beneath the media radar

Arthurs succeeded Graham Sheffield as director arts earlier this year, having joined the council in 2000. After a brief period with the independent pro-European Foreign Policy Centre she has had two stints at the BC, the first a formative seven years in her 20s startingwithmanaging Europe-wide projects from Brussels on themes of diversity, inclusion, soft power and Britain’s role in Europe. Thenshe found herself in such different environments as South Sudan, Brussels, Mexico, and Vietnam. On her way she learned to speak fluent French and Spanish - specifically the chilanga dialect of Mexican city dwellers.

She left briefly to run her own arts project management consultancy, “but I was really wanting to do international work and to be back doing cultural relations”, so she returned androse rapidly. She was director of arts strategy when Sheffield completely recast the BC’s cultural global networkwith new specialist teams in Brazil, China, Qatar, India, Mexico and South Africa, and the two worked closely together to implement the plan. Sheffield also forged new alliances with the UK’s national arts councils which Arthurs is building on, with weekly informal meetings, quarterly formal ones and a new memorandum of understanding with Arts Council England in draft form “to make sure we’re on the same page”.

At Oxford, Arthurs had taken the degree that often leads to a career in public life, politics philosophy and economics – PPE – but seems to have little relevance to what she went on to pursue. “Actually, I find that in this role is the time in my career when I have been able to bring the threads of that learning together” she says.

“In a sense we're working in different political environments internationally, and obviously there’s an economics aspect, but it’s the philosophy that’s really informing, so it's moral considerations, aesthetic considerations that I studied for my degree that now feel really pertinent.”

BC’s cultural work is in 110 countries reaching around 16 million people face to face and another 200 million online and via the media. Based in Londonshe has with her seven specialist sections coveringarchitecture, design, fashion,film, literature, music, theatre and dance and the visual arts.

She has made new head office appointments, an arts leadership triumvirate,  to consolidate the Sheffield framework: a new creative director co-ordinating the work of the art form teams and working with the UK regions; a director arts network to support the arts portfolio overseas and take charge of a creative Europe desk; and a head of arts and society to lead cross-arts creative programmes and confront global challenges.

“One of our strongest suits is our network, and what I hear from the sector is that our international network is the thing that is valued most about us – how to work in different contexts. It’s something I want to strengthen if anything. Graham’s seven years of ongoing change reflected the reality of the changing world, and even since I’ve taken over it seems the world has turned on its head several times. We need to be able to roll with that, so there will be change but no ripping up of anything.

“That core idea that the arts connects us is the thing that we’ll keep coming back to.”

The world changes, and from the end of March Britain will be officially a Third World country bringing a new and different challenge, and while the British Council’s arts funding has not been reduced it is not, in her terms, “liberated”: the BC cannot spend as it wants, and most of the cultural money historically has to be devoted to the third world, while the urgent new challenge is the second world, specifically Europe, to a lesser extent the United States and even Japan.

“Right now” Arthurs says “we want to be strengthening our relationships with France, Germany, Ireland, Spain. Romania, Bulgaria, and indeed the us. And sectors of course want to work with China and Brazil and Saudi Arabia, but we want to start out, our normal practice, by working with festivals and networks that are on our doorsteps. They look to us to support them in that and we’re not able to do it to the extent we should be able to. I’d love it if we could fix that.”

Even the States is becoming problematic, with artists sending back reports of difficulties working there. And in case there is any misunderstanding in America of the kinds of issues being faced in Europe by the refugee situation, the BC is sending the Young Vic’s controversial play The Jungleabout the Sangatte camp at Calais to New York.

It is not for the British Council to become entangled with the increasingly fraught politics of international situations, but it is to keep the connections between UK artists and arts organisations and their counterparts overseas as smooth as possible.

“As the UK prepares to leave the European Union we want to build and strengthen relations with our partners on the continent, and that is not something we can do completely free” Arthurs says. “I would highlight that as our biggest challenge.”

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