As the Arts Council England’s new 10-year strategy is announced, Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education, discusses the plan and how it seeks to foster further cultural engagement to local communities.
‘Whither the Arts?’ is a question that has long been the subject of debate within the academy, the political arena and the popular sphere. The poles of the argument are well known and longstanding. At one end stands the self-confident, monistic rationale that the study and enjoyment of the arts is an appropriate end in itself and, moreover, one possessed of intrinsic value. This view considers the arts valuable for their own sake and on their own terms thereby embracing the Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s belief that such value is ‘the absolute power of anything to support life’. At the other end of the dialectic is the dismissal of the arts as inutile and, as famously expressed by 20th century scientist and novelist CP Snow’s, ‘Two Cultures’ (of the sciences and the arts/humanities), unable to rework reality in ways that science can do so.
The just published Arts Council England’s (ACE) Strategy for 2020-2030: Let’s Create weighs persuasively into this debate. Not for ACE the high faulting critics of Ruskin or Snow. Instead, as Darren Henley, Arts Council Chief Executive, pointed out in his blog post commending Let’s Create, the Strategy’s acme is the extensive consultation with artists, policy makers, regulators, the public and community groups up and down the country to understand the worth and contribution of the arts to their lives and milieus. Accordingly, Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, in the introduction to the strategy quotes his 1950s predecessor on the ACE’s mission to be ‘growing few, but roses’ and notes that the strategy aims for a ‘blossoming of creativity’ with ‘every variety of flower’ because everyone can now be a creative ‘gardener’. Perhaps a little incautiously, and channelling this flower and gardening analogy, Justin Webb introduced the Today’s programme’s piece on Let’s Create by paraphrasing this sentiment as ‘Letting a Hundred Flowers Bloom’, which of course was the prelude initiative to Chairman Mao’s oppressive crackdown on intellectual and cultural dissent in 1950s China. Avoiding tilling this field of horticultural metaphor any further, the thrust of the new strategy might be termed ‘Devo-Max’: in other words, the nation’s creative and cultural engagement and commitment must be fostered within, and by, every community.
Role of culture in building place, identity and strong communities
The strategy for 2020-2030 has three key outcomes which the ACE will work to deliver over the next decade – Creative People, Cultural Communities and a Creative and Cultural Country. Alongside sit four investment principles – Ambition & Quality, Dynamism, Environmental Responsibility, and Inclusivity & Relevance. Although the strategy document might be fairly criticised for being somewhat light on the delivery modes for these outcomes and investment principles, it is reassuringly crystal clear on the understanding of the role that culture plays in building place, identity and strong communities.
Moreover throughout Let’s Create there is reference to the role of local education providers in developing these working relationships through partnerships, a research focus, community engagement, skills knowledge and networks and data expertise; explicitly the strategy for 2020-2030 commits that the ACE will support the organisations in which it invests to ‘forge new partnerships with further and higher education’. The concomitant of the ACE’s support of these partnerships will be its advocacy to government and others of the value of creativity in education as well as the seminal importance of a rich curriculum that includes art, design, dance, drama and music.
Universities are well placed to yield the fruits (sorry, we’ve moved from flora and fauna by way of ‘Devo-Max’ to legumes) of the priorities conveyed by Let’s Create. Many universities across the country are rightly committed to the creative art disciplines, reasoning that degree programmes within this discipline contribute to the multi-billion-pound creative industries economy, foster skills and critical reasoning and promote cultural enhancement.
The role of universities
Overall the higher education sector takes its civic responsibility seriously, seeking to play a collaborative role in its local communities promoting ‘civicness’ in its broadest sense and within that many institutions have an expressly cultural focus. The University of Derby occupies this space and some. Developing and committed to the Civic University Agreement, we offer a rich creative arts degree portfolio and work collaboratively and creatively with a whole host of local arts and cultural providers including ArtCore, Baby People, Buxton International Festival, Chatsworth House, Deda, Derby Book Festival, Derby Museums, Derby Theatre, Feste, QUAD, Sinfonia Viva and so the list goes on. We welcome ACE’s intention to devolve further cultural engagement to local communities, foster collaborative partnerships and seek breadth in the nation’s art and cultural offer. That is and has been the answer to the question ‘Whither the arts?’; so, Let’s [Continue] to Create.
 The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E.T. Cooke & A. Wedderburn , 39 vols (London: George Allen, 1903-12), xvii. p. 153.