Arts Council England Chief Executive Darren Henley talks to Liz Hill about arts funding, placemaking, education… and transparency.

Darren Henley
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Philippa Gedge

New in post and facing the prospect of Grant in Aid cuts of up to 40%, Darren Henley could perhaps justifiably consider himself to have picked up a poisoned chalice on joining Arts Council England (ACE) in May this year. But far from it. He is clearly a man who thinks big picture and his illustrious track record at Classic FM suggests that he is well prepared to lead the organisation through the sort of turbulence that could follow in the wake of a hostile funding round and the impending government White Paper on culture

Funding models, and how they can contribute to financial resilience in the sector, are one of just four themes being covered in the White Paper consultation, so what future – if any – does he see for the role of public funding of the arts? He paints a holistic picture: “Both Baz [Chair, Sir Peter Bazalgette] and I come from a private sector background but it’s important to say that we both believe very, very strongly in the place of public funding in this ecology. What I would like to see over time is us developing a bigger cake. We’re seeing arts organisations concentrating more on developing new funding streams, and in many cases being successful. If this means money in the arts and culture sector overall, then we’ll have a bigger and more vibrant arts and culture sector and we’ll be able to do more exciting things. But, I still believe passionately that public investment will be a major part of doing that. In some cases it’s needed as a catalyst. In others, it’s because leaving everything to market forces may not be the right way of making things happen.” Might loans form part of the bigger picture? Henley, and Francis Runacres, ACE’s Director of Investment and minder for the interview, were more than a little enthusiastic about ‘alternative financial instruments’: “I think it would be prudent of us to consider all options on the table. We will want to have a conversation with people in the sector, to look at the ideas that they have.”

The launch of a White Paper implies that the Government is thinking of changing legislation relating to culture, so would Henley be equally enthusiastic about a change in Lottery legislation to release that cash from its additionality straitjacket so that ACE can distribute it at will? As you would expect, he is too well media trained to give a ‘yes’, and inflame the sector, or a ‘no’, and inflame the DCMS: “That’s something for government rather than for us,” he said. Twice. “They haven’t given any indication that that’s what’s in their thinking.” Actually I beg to differ – it’s a White Paper, not a Green Paper, and funding models are on the table. That strikes me as an indication. But let’s move on…

One of the issues with commercial funding streams, I suggest, is that rich and powerful organisations, like the National Theatre, with its lucrative NT Live revenues, get richer, while those with limited prospects for raising other money have nowhere but ACE to go. “You’re right, the NT does have a lot of money. But I think it’s right that we have a National Theatre and I’m very comfortable with the level of our investment.” Where, then, does that leave the arts in the parts of the country where dreams of such revenue streams are effectively pie in the sky, I ask? To this, an on-message reply: “The Arts Council exists to invest in great art and to take that art to as many people around the country as we possibly can. That’s absolutely fundamental to what we do… There’s some fantastic art here in London and it’s really important that we cherish and protect that. But we have great art and culture beyond that as well: around the country there are places where it’s already great, but also places where it’s not so great, and we need to ask, what can we do to help make that work as well.”

He tells me that he has become an expert on train timetables and super-saver rail fares, spending around half of his working week outside London around the country,­ and his Twitter account bears witness to that. On his travels, he’s learning about “the things we can do in these places to invest in infrastructure”. But it’s not just about the supply side, he says: “sometimes we need to work on the demand side as well. Let’s build capacity, yes, but also, let’s also build demand, working with artists on the ground, encouraging people to experience different art forms and in some cases getting them to have a go at it themselves for the very first time.” His warm account of the work of Bait, the Creative People and Places programme based in former mining towns in South East Northumberland, convinces me that his earlier words about the arts reaching everyone are more than just rhetoric. He tells of his visit to a rehabilitation centre in Ashington where they brought in an artist and the people at first said ‘we can’t do art.’ He was clearly moved by the story of one woman, in her 60s, with no previous experience of the arts: “I would quite happily have gone to a gallery and paid proper money for her work and put it on my living room wall. She didn’t know how talented she was. It’s about unlocking that potential. That’s what’s really exciting.”

The potential for the arts and culture on the placemaking agenda clearly excites him too, and as a graduate of the University of Hull, with a degree in politics, he will be in a position to fully appreciate the before-and-after impact of Hull’s status as City of Culture 2017. “2015 is about planning; 2016 will be about building up the capacity there; and 2017 will be the moment of showcasing. Hull City Council are spending £25m on the public realm, and they’re doing it because they know that a lot of people will come to Hull – this is their moment. For me, this will be a great example of what sustained and careful strategic cultural investment in a place can do to change the perception of the people who live there – their perceptions of the place, and maybe even of themselves, and the possibilities of what art and culture can do for them. Also, in places like Hull, it can improve health and wellbeing. It’s no accident that the go-ahead local leadership around the country are saying they want arts and culture as a part of the regeneration or improvement of their towns and cities. They want people to want to live and work there.” He sees universities as being a significant part of the cultural regeneration picture: “I’m very interested right now in that cadre of civic universities that are doing great things with culture – like Liverpool John Moores; the University of Bedfordshire, doing fantastic things in Luton; Sunderland, running the national glass centre; Derby; and Teeside, now running MIMA. Yes, they do it because they want to attract the best students, but also because they want to attract the best academics. This is not new. You can see this in places like Oxford and Cambridge. They have a long history of placemaking, with the university museums as part of the cultural infrastrucuture.”

Henley’s passion for cultural education comes as no surprise. His latest book – The Virtuous Circle: Why Creativity and Cultural Education Count – argues that an excellent cultural education is a right, and brings personal, social and commercial advantages that benefit all individuals in society. It includes a checklist of what he feels young people should experience, by age group: “It’s partly about skills – learning how to draw, how to choreograph, how to act, for example. Then it’s about knowledge – of the history of the artform, the things that are being created and where they fit in a continuum of creativity. And then it’s about experiences – seeing ‘the best of’, meeting an actor or a musician, watching them perform. With this mixture they become critically informed, to know what they like and don’t, but also to develop the vocabulary to explain why. For me, that is very, very important.”

As author of the influential 2012 review of cultural education, he suggested that the government should consider including arts subject in the English Baccalaureate but held back from listing this among his specific recommendations – many of which, like the National Youth Dance Company – were subsequently implemented. Does he now regret that omission? He is defensive: “In the text it says there should be a sixth column [of EBacc subjects]. I believe that arts and cultural education is central to a full rounded education for children and young people. If I was Secretary of State for Education, I would have it as part of the EBacc – yes. That should be no surprise to anybody. I still think that and I stand by everything I said in that report.”

So, given where we are now, with arts subjects excluded from the compulsory suite of school subjects, what can the Arts Council do to help get the arts embedded into schools? “Decisions these days are being made on a school by school basis, so the head teacher and the chair of governors have become incredibly powerful. I would say to your readers, are they a school governor?  I’m a school governor, and governing bodies can talk to headteachers and influence their thinking. If we could get arts practitioners onto school governing bodies, then that would be a fantastic way of ensuring that we keep arts and culture at the heart of education in this country.”

With Henley’s glass-half-full enthusiasm for the Arts Council’s work ringing in my ears, it felt a little churlish to raise the issue of ACE’s transparency with him – not least because he is extremely personable, and wasn’t at the helm when we published some of our more eye-watering stories of obfuscation. But based on the feedback we get from the sector – not least the comments of an anonymous NPO leader, who just last year shared what appear to be some commonly held views on ACE – my impression is that this organisation is still a long way from being fully transparent and accountable for the public money it spends. So I challenged Henley with this. I’m glad I did.

“People play the Lottery, they pay their taxes; we have an obligation to explain how we’re investing that; to be as open as we possibly can; to make sure the processes we go through are as careful and as fair and as structured as we possibly can. That’s really, really important to us.” Apparently it’s only ArtsProfessional that has concerns about ACE’s transparency. He continues: “You’re the first person – and I have probably met 3,000 to 4,000 people – the first person that has told me we’re not a transparent organisation. I’m not disputing it, but I have had round tables and I have asked people to tell me – I’ve said ‘I’m new, I’m coming in – tell me what the faults and criticisms of the Arts Council are.’ I’ve asked them what they want from me as a new chief executive, and actually, transparency has not been one that surfaced at all.”

Hmm… very strange. A case of arts organisations ‘Feeling the Fear’ of losing funding, maybe? How depressing. “Maybe they don’t know what they don’t know until ArtsProfessional actually publishes something”, I reply.

I continue: “Why, in England, are we told that the roof will fall in if ACE publishes the names of those who lose their funding in an NPO round, while in Wales, that information is shared on the basis that even if the decisions aren’t popular, they need to be accountable?” “I think there was a list [of those who lost their funding]” replies Henley, looking for confirmation from Francis Runacres who, strangely, couldn’t remember whether that was the case. “That was a long time ago”, he said. Well, only 14 months ago, actually; and ACE not only didn’t publish a list, it also made a mistake in spinning the numbers. I guess it’s useful to forget things like that.

I then explain a bit about my views of ACE’s ‘This England’ report, which formed the basis of its submission to last year’s Select Committee inquiry – I even use the word “outrageous.” I suspect Henley hadn’t read my deconstruction of its arguments. He continued: “I am the chief accounting officer for the organisation, and we have a very rigorous internal and external audit policy. We’re also subject to scrutiny by the National Audit Office.” I point out that the Arts Council suffered the indignity of being hauled up by the National Audit Office three years ago, for slipping money across from its Lottery to Grant in Aid accounts. “And that was three years ago and it hasn’t happened since”, he replies. So that’s alright then.

What do I conclude from all this? Is Henley the right man for the job at Arts Council England? My conclusion is a resounding yes. His passion for the work and the energy that he puts into it is inspiring; his apparent commitment to serving all audiences, wherever they may be, is very welcome; and his grasp of the changing external environment and commitment to ‘developing a bigger cake’ – whatever the outcome of the Spending Review – is exactly what the sector needs right now. His commercial credentials and track record put him in good standing with the current Government, and he’s unlikely to be dismissed as a ‘luvvie’ if he makes a strong case for funding from the public purse. He has nothing to hide and nothing to fear – so let’s hope that this will also mean that he’s as good as his word on transparency. As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s still out on that. 

Liz Hill is Editor of ArtsProfessional.

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Liz Hill

Comments

Good to see Darren H chatting with AP, especially as Liz is a great challenger of practice and AP has a history of raising issues that may be seen as difficult for ACE. The really good thing about this is that it shows that Darren is prepared to embrace the fact that ACE is not perfect and that it must be open to question - in order to make things better. There is an elephant in the room here which is that it is extremely difficult for those that seek (or already in receipt of) ACE support to speak openly about things that are potentially critical of ACE practice. If I were in Darren’s position where there are ‘rumours’ of discontent around transparency (clearly recorded in previous AP articles by sector people who feel it necessary to remain anonymous) and then on the other hand not one of 4000 people had even mentioned transparency then I might be concerned to try to set up a safe mechanism to ensure that people were able to say what they really think. That people may not feel confident to say things that they are upset or concerned about to the funding body that can make professional ‘life and death’ decisions seems to be the most obviously fraught scenario - perhaps one might wonder if this is not a healthy way to go about things? There is a chronic tendency to shy away from the difficult and the potentially ‘bad-news’ stuff that objectively really isn’t healthy at ACE (it isn't healthy in any organization to shy away from the customer negative feedback, but in this case the fear is that if the ‘customer/client’ complains then ACE will take its business elsewhere). The officers are under great pressure of course and I think just too snowed under to be ultra rigorous and the culture is definitely one of always emphasise the positive (for fear of giving ammunition to outside detractors/the government). Washing ones dirty washing in public has its dangers, but it also has its benefits as it is a demonstration of rigour, of a willingness to be accountable and welcoming of outside thought. I think that the public (who are the funders) do not understand and therefore can not wholesomely support arts funding in the UK. Liberal arts engaged people do – on the basis of a core belief in public sector funding of culture - but I don’t think that the majority really get it. Most of the ‘toolkits’ for advocacy are aimed at decision makers rather than the public. ACE and the sector in general is very inward looking, almost afraid to ask the (Corbyn-esque?) questions that challenge ourselves and invite the widest public to join in – fundamentally, are we doing this right? Is the perception that art is for an elitist club actually true? 30% of ACE funding goes to theatre NPOs, does this really reflect a good balance of how to engage the public in arts? When we compare DCMS funding of two parallel sectors –arts and sport – does one fund ‘excellence’ and the other fund participation; and is this desirable? Is the funding pattern too stuck, endlessly repeating the same thing? Are ACE officers in this conversation, do they wish to have it, do they have time, does their organization encourage challenging thought? The arts funding apparatus is so bogged down with defending itself and the sector that, ironically, the most creative sector often struggles to be truly innovative and ground breaking in encouraging critical thinking; the tendency is always to repeatedly defend what is, the status quo – a recipe for stagnancy. Clearly there are exceptions to this, arts orgs that are doing progressive things, embracing the need to be more accessible and innovative (sometimes this is a contradiction), but the defending the status quo approach is the greater contradiction. We really have to think about future audiences, we really need to be five years ahead rather than five years behind. It could be said that the whole set up of ACE funding is actually still based upon a model evolved in the fifties and sixties – not five years but fifty years behind. If all this sounds like an awful assault it is not meant to be, there is no question that everything that is done is done with the best intentions by very nice and decent people. However there is no real transparency, there is only announcements of decisions. There are inner cadres, there are dinner parties and friendships, there is no real open conversation – and those with much to lose do not feel very empowered to speak out. Darren (if you are listening) I am maybe one in 4000 but I know I speak for others, and if I met you (maybe I have?) I would be very careful about what I would say to you if it were critical of the 'stuck' thing that I perceive, and more importantly I would worry about ever openly being seen to question decisions that ACE makes because the corporate message is that ‘boat rockers’ can easily find themselves in the water, or at the very least in a smaller boat. This is not a transparent system, and without wishing to be rude, it is OBVIOUSLY not transparent and it is worrying to think that anyone thinks it is. Do we recognise this as a problem - it doesn't even seem an outrageous suggestion that it is? How can this be fixed?