Art can change anyone's life for the better

Nicholas Serota, Issue 117/05, p14, 01.05.2017
Opportunities for transformative experiences should not be limited by social, educational or economic privilege
My time at Tate strengthened my belief that excellence and access to the arts can be combined without compromise to either. This remains central in my role as the chair of Arts Council England (ACE). I want to see the arts, museums and libraries recognised as being vital to everybody, and for them to have an even more prominent place in the nation’s life.

Museums are great centres for civic society; their integration into the national portfolio this year will open up the possibility for interesting and exciting partnerships, building on the excellent work already happening at a local level when organisations collaborate on creative and cultural projects.

Our job at the arts council is to identify and support the best of art and culture, whatever discipline and form that assumes, and to create opportunities for everyone to step beyond their own experience, whether that’s by taking part or as a member of an audience.

I’ve made my life building bridges between artists, curators and audiences, and feel strongly that we must not forget that arts and culture are first about the magic of that individual encounter, the special experience that changes our view of the world, or our understanding of ourselves – that the arts change lives.

The chance for such an encounter should not be limited by social, educational or economic privilege. They should begin early in life. Young people have a right to a broad, high-quality education, involving creative and academic training.

There’s a consensus about the importance of nurturing creativity in children and a growing view that the arts can make a valuable contribution to education. However, it remains the case that too many pupils lack access to a high-quality cultural education, and too few universities ask applicants to show that they have an appetite for the arts.

So, in my first speech as arts council chair, I announced the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education, led by the University of Durham and supported by ACE. It will investigate what happens when children experience arts and culture, and how this helps them develop.

The commission will generate proposals for unlocking creativity in the next generation, so that every child is able to achieve their creative potential, whether that’s as an artist, scientist or engineer. Our strength as a society, and as a competitive economy, depends on it.

Through this commission and all of our work for children and young people, we aim to create a national debate about the way we are preparing our children for the challenges of the 21st century.

Opportunity should not be limited by where you happen to live. This is especially relevant after the European referendum, which exposed greater differences of belief and opportunity in society than we had fully recognised.

In places that haven’t had a great deal of arts activity or cultural investment, art and culture can encourage community values, stimulate economic activity and, crucially, give a voice to individuals who feel they have not been heard. This is where the arts council aims to provide greater engagement through projects such as Creative People and Places – not only funding museums, libraries and the arts, but also improving their accessibility in terms of geographic location and diversity. The arts council must take the initiative by encouraging the creation and sustainability of cultural projects in neglected areas across England.

Public investment in our arts, museums and libraries is investment in a shared cultural language, with many different voices and accents.

At the core of all our work at the arts council is the belief that an encounter with art and culture can be a catalyst for change in all our lives. A belief that in sharing these experiences we become stronger, as individuals and as communities, and fairer as a nation.

Nicholas Serota is the chair of Arts Council England