Could England’s lead cultural agency offer a long-term template for Japan as a whole?

by Akiko Yanagisawa

Special To The Japan Times

Arts Council England, generally referred to as the Arts Council, is a national agency which, in its own words, “champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives.”

To pursue this mission, it supports a range of activities in England “across the arts, museums and libraries — from theater to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts and collections.”

With a history now spanning more than 70 years, the Arts Council has its roots in the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts set up in 1940 and chaired in those dark days of World War II by the celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes.

During the next 50 years — which saw the creation of a national government minister for the arts in 1964 — the Arts Council went through various revisions. However, its current form dates from 2003, when England’s 10 regional arts boards were merged into the one centrally funded body that was allocated an impressive £2.4 billion (¥408.7 billion) between 2011-15. Of that total, £1.4 billion (¥238.5 billion) came from taxpayers and £1 billion (¥170.3 billion) from funds required to be channeled from the proceeds of a hugely popular National Lottery introduced in 1993. Over the years, with resources on this scale consistently available to it, the Arts Council has been able to steadily increase its role in transforming the cultural landscape of the nation.

In practice, this ongoing process is primarily achieved through Arts Council sponsorship of a very broad spectrum of artistic endeavor. In particular, as it made clear in “Great Art and Culture for Everyone,” its core vision for the coming decade published last year, it encourages new, contemporary and experimental arts — and also undertakes a broader responsibility for museums and libraries.

Specifically, that vision also detailed the Arts Council’s fivefold mission as being: To promote excellence; to be for everyone; to develop sustainable and resilient art forms; to encourage diversity and skills; and to ensure that children and young people are not ignored in the provision of the arts.

One of the chief ways in which the organization turns this theory into practice is via “national portfolio organizations” — currently comprising some 696 arts groups it is supporting to varying degrees, with the funding provided from 2012-15 — a timespan which allows recipients to plan their activities with some security.

Meanwhile, a program titled Grants for the Arts is primarily aimed at assisting and nurturing fresh talent and individual artists and supporting community projects. This program sets rolling deadlines and its accessibility is greatly enhanced by the fact that the interval between it receiving an application for a grant, and its awarding of one, is typically only six to 12 weeks.

However, the Arts Council isn’t just a rubber-stamping body. One of its great features is how it develops relationships with arts organizations and artists — regarding them as partners rather than mere recipients of grants. For example, it employs what are known as relationship managers, who specialize in specific art forms and work closely with artists and arts and cultural groupings to help them achieve their objectives. Staff are also frequently present at arts and cultural events.

One appreciative recipient of such close support has been Farooq Chaudhry, a producer with the world-renowned London-based Akram Khan contemporary dance company, which has received Arts Council support since 2002. Interviewed recently for The Japan Times, he said, “I believe the relationship between artists and the Arts Council is one of cultural ‘investment.’ What we give in return are artistic risk-taking, excellence and access. Our mutual expectations are to enrich the cultural fabric of the nation and to ensure that all we do is inspiring, invigorating and innovative.

“On the whole, it is a very positive partnership. We have always invited them to rehearsals and we have always contributed to shaping their policy. It’s been very collaborative.”

Altogether, it appears that the professionals and arts lovers who comprise Arts Council England are going a long way toward delivering on the ambitious aims they have set for themselves and their nation’s well-being.

Akiko Yanagisawa is a London-based cultural coordinator and founding head of mu:arts (www.muarts.org.uk).