Supporting talent and nurturing creativity is vital in a sector that relies on a multi-faceted set of skills, says Graham Sheffield.

Photo of speaker at No Boundaries conference
Shanai Newman speaking at the No Boundaries conference

I was greatly inspired by this year’s No Boundaries conference, which the British Council supports with Arts Council England. There is a great deal to discuss from many of the sessions, not least the excellent provocations on freedom of expression from Natalia Koliada, Basma El Husseiny, Vasif Kortun and others. The session on nurturing tomorrow’s talent, however, has given me much to think about and reflect upon in relation to our own programme here at the British Council, not least how education plays an important role both in early development, but also as a lifelong experience.

You must understand so many things beyond what a traditional education can provide, such as entrepreneurship, fundraising, business development, communications and marketing

The role that education, in its broadest sense, has to play in the work of the British Council is a crucial one. Education, in all its forms, matters. Not only to individuals and employability in the creative sector but to the future prosperity of societies and to inter-cultural dialogue. It is therefore crucial that education continues outside the traditional boundaries of the classroom. Nurturing creative talent, and looking for innovative ways to give people the skills to develop their ideas, must continue to be of great importance throughout people’s careers.

In the session on nurturing talent, we heard from a range of speakers who addressed the question of whether we are doing enough to educate and support creativity in the UK. We heard from speakers including Jacqui O’Hanlon, Director of Education at the Royal Shakespeare Company, who spoke about the challenges of ensuring that the works and legacy of Shakespeare remain relevant in schools in both the state and private sector. Two inspiring young people, Reece Williams and Rosemary Davies from Contact Theatre and Battersea Art Centre’s The Agency programme, spoke with great clarity about the benefits of a creative yet practical education that doesn’t necessarily fall within the bounds of the curriculum – a sentiment echoed by Professor Sugata Mitra’s take on ‘just in case education’.

The increase in multi-disciplinary arts, the rise of digital arts and the breaking down of silos between artforms are all creating new challenges. These challenges face anyone seeking to develop a serious career in what is becoming one of the most exciting areas in which to work in many of the world’s most important economies – from China to Brazil to India. My experience has led me to believe that the requirements of managing an arts venue or an outfit like the British Council, even as an artist oneself, are multi-faceted. You must understand so many things beyond what a traditional education can provide, such as entrepreneurship, fundraising, business development, communications and marketing, plus an attention to accessibility, diversity and the building of new audiences. This is vital to supporting the development of creative industries everywhere and I feel the learning in our own creative sector can (and should) be shared with the world.

Just after the conference, I travelled to Kiev and then on to Almaty in Kazakhstan. Almaty is now a city in search of a new identity, with the national government removed to the new capital of Astana, shortly to be followed by the financial services sector. The prevailing view of the city authorities in Almaty is that culture and the creative industries will form a backbone of a new era for the city, but it’s fair to say they are struggling with the practicalities. This is where I believe the UK can play a major part over the next few years. I hope that the British Council and our partners across the UK can share our skills and learning, through projects such as Watershed’s innovative Playable City programme, which helps reimagine how citizens can engage with their cities and is currently running in Tokyo. Or through Nesta’s Creative Enterprise toolkit, which we have made available in six languages around the world. I also hope we can help our partners introduce Almaty’s creative sector to the best of UK performing arts and share our expertise in livestreaming to reach audiences across the vast distances of Kazakhstan, which is the world’s ninth largest country by area but with a population of just 18 million.

This is part of a wider programme of work at the British Council in cultural skills and the creative economy. Against a backdrop of high unemployment and slow economic growth, the cultural sector is increasingly being recognised as an engine that can fuel job creation, innovation, contribute towards social cohesion and trigger spill-over effects that benefit the wider economy. To successfully reap these widespread socioeconomic benefits, it is vital that the sector is fit for purpose with a workforce that is equipped with the necessary skills. Our work in the creative economy has long been about supporting countries to develop the policy and environment to enable this workforce, and I am delighted that our recently formed Cultural Skills programme will complement this by developing the abilities of the same. Our team has begun to deliver programmes in a number of key countries, from Greece to Singapore, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and is looking for partners to help deliver courses and exchanges.

Graham Sheffield is Director Arts at the British Council.

To listen to the speakers at the 2015 No Boundaries conference click here.

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Photo of Graham Sheffield