Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. —Andy Warhol

9 May

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Thrust from the mellow harp strings and oboe world of Classic FM into the writhing snake-pit of arts funding, Darren Henley is a man who relishes a challenge.

Three years into his role as Chief Executive of Arts Council England, Henley is unenviably sandwiched between the downward pressure of the hands of government and the desperate grubby fingers of the arts community.

One wants return on investment the other creative freedom.

In his book ‘The Arts Dividend – Why Investment In Culture Pays’ the Arts Council boss is unafraid to address funding in economic terms and makes it clear that the organisation views itself as an investor who ‘don’t like to subsidise the arts’.

As he says ‘It’s not charity, we’ll do something with you that will make a difference to your lives’.

While acknowledging that London ‘is fantastic’, Henley has made it his mission to seek out ‘places that are not deemed cultural hotspots’ and has visited 157 villages, towns and cities in the past 18 months.

The purple interiors of Premier Inns and complicated rail ticket calculations have been a feature of his odyssey, ‘We don’t want to waste your money’ he said with a smile.

Whether his £170,000 salary is at the budget end of the pay scale is less clear.

As one of those ‘not deemed cultural hotspots’, Swindon was mentioned as a perfect alternative base for artists driven out of London by high living costs.

Darren posed the intriguing question ‘What could we do to bring artists to Swindon and use some of the buildings here?’

What indeed?

An Arts Council supported heritage & arts strategy for our town which makes the most of our iconic buildings?

We have the culture, the will and the empty spaces, so why not?

Back to reality and some more words mined from the Treasury Thesaurus of Arts Terms.

The Arts Council receives a significant amount of its funding from the National Lottery and faces the challenge to fairly distribute ‘those riches’ beyond London and beyond class boundaries.

Given that the lottery has been described as a tax on the poor with funds not reaching the deprived areas where most tickets are purchased, Henley’s challenge is to deliver an arts dividend to these people.

He grapples with the question of ‘How do we make art relevant to people’s lives?’ and acknowledges that ‘there’s a whole group of people without a library card, who don’t visit museums or go to the cinema and an amazing number of young people who haven’t been to a venue with tip-up seats’.

Henley returns to economic parlance with his desire to oversee a ‘Talent Pipeline’, which gives ‘all young people opportunities in the arts’.

Perhaps not the most motivational language to a talented artist in Park South or Moredon but there is a framework at work here which speaks in spreadsheets and uses an inverted pyramid of power founded on popularity and return on investment.

Henley wants communities to be more demanding of Arts Council England as investors which is admirable but ignores the irrelevance of art and arts funding in areas desperately scraping at the scratchcards which end up funding projects hundreds of miles away.

There was much talk of the need for data to show the impact of art from a particular project but none about the use of data to target those who contribute most funds.

Darren Henley gave a sincere overview of his commitment to generating benefits for communities from projects funded by the Arts Council.

Unfortunately, he made me wonder where the sheer joy of creation had gone amongst investors, pipelines and spreadsheets.

The fact that a professional executive controls the purse strings of the Arts Council and not an executive professional made the whole process seem uninspiring and sterile.

Although I’m sure that deep thinker and spectacular potsman Grayson Perry would not want to be the sandwich filling between artists and government, innovative ideas and art as well as economics need to be pinballing the mind of the man in charge.

The Arts Council needs risk, artistic direction, simplicity and a clear commitment to ignite neglected communities, then the real dividend will be delivered.

 

by Michael Scott

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