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To unlock the full value of culture, Arts Council England needs to support villages, towns and cities across the country to work together more closely, says the funder's Deputy Chief Executive Simon Mellor.

A photo of the atrium of the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts works with 350,000 people a year through its education and well-being programme

Andrew Louis / CC BY 3.0

As I explained in my last blog introducing the consultation process for Arts Council England’s (ACE) new draft strategy, the aims of the strategy are expressed in three key outcomes.

Our ‘Creative People’ outcome (which I also discussed last week) is focused on the way that we can increase chances for everyone to develop and express their creativity. The second outcome, ‘Cultural Communities’, considers how cultural provision could be organised in communities to ensure that everyone has access to a high quality cultural offer, and that those communities are able to thrive – socially, economically and in terms of their health and wellbeing. The two outcomes are of course intimately connected: access to a high quality cultural offer will increase chances of individuals being able to develop their creative potential.

We need to demonstrate that investment in culture will lead to communities that are more socially cohesive and economically robust

ACE has for many years played an active, successful role in helping culture shape the places where we live. Working with a range of partners and using our revenue and capital funds and touring programmes we have strengthened cultural opportunities in villages, towns and cities across the country. Helping set up Manchester International Festival taught me what a powerful role culture can play in helping places reimagine and reposition themselves on the global stage.

The impact of culture in strengthening communities is at its most powerful when there is a high degree of collaboration between cultural organisations in a place – where a genuine sense of joint endeavour animates a shared commitment to removing the barriers that prevent as many people as possible from participating in publicly-funded culture. We have seen striking success in this regard through our Creative People and Places programme. When individuals and communities are involved in shaping their own creative and cultural lives, and when the cultural sector works with a breadth of community partners, the range of people who engage in cultural activities widens considerably – because those activities matter to them.

Supporting collaboration

Over the next decade, I think we need to build on the myriad examples of collaborative practice among cultural organisations that already exist across the country. How can we encourage our arts organisations, museums and libraries to collaborate even more closely? How might they use shared data and intelligence to identify the needs and interests of their communities and then work together to deliver shared outcomes? Can we do more to share resources and listen more closely to the voices of our communities in the planning of cultural programmes? That way we will see limited resources going further and a richer publicly funded cultural offer being developed that engages all parts of our community to deliver significant cultural, civic and education benefits.

The lessons we are beginning to learn from Cultural Education Partnerships up and down the country suggest that this collaborative approach could be especially powerful in improving opportunities for children and young people. I’d love to see the day when cultural organisations are working in active partnership with local schools and colleges to design and resource a joint programme that ensures that every child and young person in every community has access to a high quality cultural education offer and improved opportunities to develop their creative potential.

Social value

I believe similar opportunities exist in relation to health and well-being. One of the most exciting and eye-opening visits I made last year was to the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. Under the inspired leadership of Nathalie Bondil, this traditional civic museum has reinvented itself. Its collections and exhibitions remain world-leading, but at the heart of the museum is a large education and well-being programme working with 350,000 people a year, many visiting as a result of a prescription issued by one of 4000 GPs working with the museum. What might we learn from this museum in thinking about the wider social value of our cultural organisations and how they can work with local care providers to improve the wellbeing of their communities?

The Arts Council itself will also need to focus more closely on its role as a development agency. We should work with all organisations who have an interest in helping their communities thrive – local government, business, further and higher education and schools, healthcare providers, the criminal justice system, the commercial and voluntary sector and other funders – and persuade them that culture has a vital role in helping them deliver their aims. We need to demonstrate to them that investment in culture will lead to communities that are more socially cohesive and economically robust and in which residents experience improved physical and mental well-being. In doing so we recognise that publicly funded cultural provision is currently uneven, especially outside larger metropolitan areas. We need to look for partners to work with us to build cultural capacity and invest in distribution models that have been enabled by new technologies.

This is a daunting task. But if we succeed, the rewards will be enormous.

Simon Mellor is Deputy Chief Executive, Arts and Culture at Arts Council England.

Do you share ACE’s thinking? Let them know and take part in the draft strategy consultation.

If there’s anything you’d like clarifying before participating in the consultation, ArtsProfessional will be putting questions to ACE to encourage discussion in the sector. Email editors@artsprofessional.co.uk with your question. We’ll choose the most popular and thought-provoking to put to ACE, who’ll publish their answers here in future weeks.

Simon Mellor’s next Arts Professional piece will focus on A creative and cultural country.

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