BRITISH COUNCIL: Getting the arts back into the bloodstream

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In five years the British Council has undergone a transformation in its cultural influence in the world, guided by its director of arts, Graham Sheffield. he discusses the strategy for the next five years with Simon Tait



In 2007 the British Council’s renowned international arts programmes were decimated in a policy lurch that saw a proposal to disband its specialist departments and revert to a mission of “cultural diplomacy” with staff drastically pared down.

But then a letter of protest signed by artists including Antony Gormley, Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor to the then chief executive, Martin Davidson, led to a last minute u-turn. The director of arts resigned and the arts director of the Barbican Centre, Graham Sheffield, was drafted in with a former Arts Council chief, Graham Devlin, as consultants to help formulate a rebuilding of the British Council’s arts programmes.

Two years later their plan was put into operation when Sheffield was recruited as the British Council’s new director of arts, with a five year scheme. Diplomatically, he said then that the British Council (BC) was a “cultural relations organisation, and the arts has a big role to play”. Since then the BC has become a major international force in the arts and proselytising and putting into practice the social healing qualities of creativity, with diplomatic harmony almost an incidental benefit.

“It’s been a five year journey” he says now “of re-establishing the arts at the core of the council’s thinking - more than just money or numbers of people but to get the arts back into the bloodstream of the organisation again. It had got dissipated and diluted”. But more than accomplishing a blood transfusion for the BC, through working with Sheffield’s experts governments and authorities across the world are now recognising the power and influence of having a successful creative sector within the economy.

Since Sheffield arrived in 2011 the BC’s core grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has shrunk to 16% (from 25% in 2010) while its spend on the arts has grown by 30%, to just shy of £50m. He identified key areas in the world and set up flagship programmes in places such as South Africa, Mexico and Nigeria, has made inroads into former no-go areas like China and Iran and finessed relationships with tricky zones such as Russia. The number of individual artists who have directly benefited from involved with the BC has doubled.

His policy has been to knit BC expertise with the cultural structures on the ground, tailoring programmes in col- laboration rather then imposing them. The BC has taken on cultural leadership, developed a creative economy network around the globe, built creative capacity where it is needed, introduced the arts into all BC programmes, and has built confidence at home where almost nothing had been known about BC activities. Strategies have been changed and refreshed as political situations have altered. There is a virtual queue at Sheffield’s door of nations wanting to tap into the BC cultural nous.

 As his fifth anniversary approached Sheffield was asked by Davidson’s successor as CEO, Ciarán Devane, what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to finish the job, but only with the full support of Devane, and was duly pledged it.

So last week Sheffield celebrated by announcing a new five year plan, which includes running a new Cultural Protection Fund, a four year £30m programme for the For- eign Office and DCMS to safeguard the world’s heritage sites from the depredations of organisations such as ISIS and the Taliban. Aimed especially at the Middle East and North Africa, the new fund that starts later in June will give grants to preserve the heritage and arrange partner- ships and training to care for and protect it.

There is to be a programme of showcasing, giving new opportunities for British artists and organisations to intro- duce audiences around the world to what we do, includ- ing long-term seasons and festivals. Sheffield wants to strengthen the arts sector’s capacity to innovate, develop skills and support livelihoods, with designers and makers around the globe swapping skills and experience.

He wants more collaboration, working with organisa- tions such as the Arts Council and the British Film Insti- tute, expanding the £2.5m Artists International Develop- ment Fund (AIDF), for instance, which helps UK artists develop internationally. And there will be more policy and research studies to enhance the role of culture in peace making.

“We have refreshed our strategy to take into account global changes as well as the needs of the UK sector and its increased desire to internationalise” Sheffield said at the strategy launch. “We have been exporting the best of UK arts and culture around the world for 80 years and this new vision will ensure that that work remains relevant and beneficial to UK arts organisations and continues to benefit the UK’s international security, prosperity and in- fluence.”

Behind the scenes it has meant an on-going campaign to encourage the government to have a greater sense of pride and ownership of the cul- tural resources there are in the UK. “Is the creative dimension strong enough in our education system? Answer, no. Are we valuing our creative professionals enough? Answer, no, and yet the demand for our skills across the world has risen to a clamour.

“It’s not just a case of firing UK culture at distant parts of the world, it’s about mutual respect and engaging laterally”.

That takes time and careful planning, and in the last five years Sheffield has increased his staff from 60 to 85, some of those in new offices around the UK to make links with artists and organisations outside London. The BC was seen as irrelevant to individuals’ international ambi- tions and that is being addressed through showcases and involvement in the Cities of Culture programme.

The BC is also going into new areas, working with major libraries in the UK to extend their international influence, and for the first time into gaming at which the British are acknowledged world leaders. “In general, with decreases in funding in the UK, the arts sector is looking to see if it can make more connections overseas, and we can help with that”.

In his first year there was a massive international celebration of Dickens to mark the bicentenary of his birth that brought a staggering response, the BC’s biggest single campaign ever, and this year’s Shakespeare Lives campaign, organised with the GREAT Britain programme, has surpassed it. On the anniversary weekend in April it reached an audience of three-quarters of a billion online, and tributary programmes are springing up all over the world with the guidance of BC staff. The Olympics in 2012 had a profound effect on the understand- ing of the arts and disability, and the BC will have a strong presence in Rio this summer.

“The challenge now is how we scale up our capacity with larger amounts of funding, whether through programmes like the Cultural Protection Fund or contracts like the £5m skills building scheme in Russian neighbouring states” Sheffield says.

“What used to be a boutique operation has now be- come a department store on rather a large scale.”

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