The founding mission of the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it was then known), to grow “few, but roses”, reflected its austere postwar ambitions, and an elitism that saw it focus on excellence at the expense of what were deemed to be lower forms of culture.
Arts Council England’s new 10-year strategy Let’s Create, launched this week, makes a clean break with the past. In the coming decade, the arts council promises an egalitarian approach that will “recognise that we can all be gardeners”.
“The biggest shift is what we are saying about making sure that everybody has the chance to develop their creativity – and that it’s all equally valid,” says a spokeswoman from the arts council. The first of the strategy’s three outcomes, creative people, reflects this, outlining an ambition that “everyone can develop and express creativity throughout their lives”.
The other two outcomes are interlinked with this: the second outcome, cultural communities, aims for villages, towns and cities that “thrive through a collaborative approach to culture”; the third, a creative and cultural country, promises – in what seems like a defiant nod to Brexit – a cultural sector that is “innovative, collaborative and international”.
This vision builds on the arts council’s previous 2010-20 strategy, Great Art and Culture for Everyone – but there are notable differences. The arts council’s brief expanded to include museums and libraries in 2011 and at times since then, it has been accused of not fully recognising the unique, distinguishing characteristics of those forms of culture.
The new strategy makes strides towards overcoming this criticism. It promises to create “museums of the future”, acknowledging how museums are evolving into cross disciplinary institutions that “help us understand and shape culture”. The arts council is also integrating its UK-wide, statutory responsibilities for collections and cultural property – including programmes like Acceptance in Lieu and Government Indemnity – more closely into its overarching agenda for museums; a new museums and cultural property team has been created to oversee this.
“A dynamic museums sector will be at the heart of this strategy,” says the report. “Over the next 10 years, alongside our statutory functions, we will go on expanding public access to their collections, to ensure that they continue to delight and inspire as many people as possible.”
The new strategy also opts for notably more inclusive language: “artist” has been replaced with “creative practitioner”, and the arts council explains that it is using the term “culture” to encompass all of the areas of activity in which it invests. “By describing all of this work collectively as ‘culture’, rather than separately as ‘the arts’, ‘museums’ and ‘libraries’, we aim to be inclusive of the full breadth of activity that we support,” says the strategy.
In addition, an ambition to support culture for children and young people is embedded throughout the strategy rather than being a standalone goal as before.
The arts council carried out an 18-month consultation while writing the strategy, speaking to more than 6,000 people in the process.
This feedback has spurred an important milestone in its development: environmental sustainability has been reframed as “environmental responsibility”, and has been elevated to one of four investment principles.
According to an arts council spokeswoman, this change in language is intended to signal a more overarching, holistic approach to environmental issues, which will see the arts council invest in cultural organisations that “lead the way in their approach to environmental responsibility”.
The other three investment principles also reflect the evolution that the cultural sector has undergone in the past decade. The arts council’s longstanding focus on excellence has morphed into “ambition and quality”, while previous talk of resilience has given way to “dynamism” – organisations that are able to “respond to the challenges of the next decade”.
There’s been a significant change in how the arts council talks about diversity. The sector's glaring lack thereof is a persistent failure, and the strategy highlights it as an important issue the requires action.
What was a goal of “diversity and skills” in the previous strategy has now evolved into “inclusivity and relevance”, reflecting an ongoing dialogue that has led to diversity being viewed in a more holistic way: it is no longer just about recruiting staff and reaching audiences from diverse backgrounds, but about ensuring people feel included and represented every time they walk through the doors.
The launch of the new strategy is a big moment for the arts council but its impact won’t be felt for a while. Still in the midst of its 2018-22 funding portfolio, there will be little change to its National Portfolio and lottery funding programmes for now.
The strategy is light on detail of how its ambitious vision will be realised – but the first of several delivery plans is due in April that will shed more light on the requirements for prospective grantholders if they want to make the grade in the next portfolio. For museums, this plan will be informed by the recommendations of the 2017 Mendoza review.
The arts council spokeswoman says the strategy is designed to be flexible and responsive to changes taking place in the sector over the next decade.
Not everyone is impressed by what have been described as the “vague generalisations” in the arts council’s vision, however. Five culture professionals launched an alternative strategy last week, calling for the arts council to focus on values such as justice, trust, accountability and risk.
Everyone may be a gardener now – but there’s still plenty of room for debate over what gets planted.