Before Covid cast its terrible shadow across our lives, I spent around half of my working life visiting the villages, towns and cities of this country to see for myself how our public investment in artists, arts organisations, museums and libraries is helping to inspire people and reinvigorate communities. One of those trips was to Blackpool – a place that instantly conjures images of seaside summer holidays. But it was the town’s Central Library that left as much of an impression on me as any of its more famous landmarks.
When I walked into the grand early-20th-century building, I was struck by the individual words etched on the window panes on the ground floor: Belong, Illuminate, Aspire, Freedom, Reflect, Stories, Imagine, and Curiosity. I discovered that the words had been chosen by people living in Blackpool to explain what the library meant to them. For me, they sum up the huge part a cultural building can play in the life of its community and how creativity and culture have such an important role in bringing inspiration, ambition and joy into people’s lives. Or to put it another way, how providing access to excellent cultural and creative experiences can help with the aspiration to level-up the opportunities for everyone right across the country.
The pandemic has proved to be both a pause button and a fast-forward button for the cultural life of this country. Our cultural organisations would have not survived the shock of closures and cancellations without the unprecedented decision by the government to invest £1.96 billion through the Culture Recovery Fund. Championed by the then culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, with the support of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, this is the biggest public investment of all time in our nation’s cultural life. It recognises the tireless ingenuity of those working in the sector who rapidly came up with new ways to connect with audiences and visitors, giving virtual and real-life access to collections, performances and artworks in neighbourhoods across the country.
It seems that a lot of us got a bit more creative ourselves during our enforced isolation. Many people also picked up a paintbrush or plucked a guitar, wrote poetry or prose, helped their children or grandchildren colour in rainbows, returned to old creative passions or found new ones to help maintain their mental health.
At Arts Council England, we have just published a new plan to show how we are going to deliver Let’s Create, our ten-year strategy for creativity and culture. We learned a lot during lockdown and we have incorporated that learning into the plan. Although we all recognise the need for caution, I believe there is now a sense of optimism, purpose and determination in the air. That is why we feel that now is the right time to lay out how we plan to turn the vision of Let’s Create into a reality. By 2030, we want England to be a country in which the creativity of each of us is valued, and given the chance to flourish, and where every one of us has access to a remarkable range of high-quality cultural experiences close to where they live.
We have named 54 places we think are ready to be among the first to deliver on that promise. From towns in the North and Midlands, which were the powerhouses of our industrial revolution, to communities across the rest of our country, in our inner cities, rural areas, and along our coastline. They include Walsall and Wigan, Barrow-in-Furness and Blackpool, Mansfield and Medway, Great Yarmouth and Gosport. These places and the other 46 we have identified have something in common. They are communities where we believe we can make new investments that will connect artists, arts organisations, museums and libraries with new audiences while, at the same time, serving existing audiences even better. But they also have something else in common: in each of them, there is the will among community leaders to make a difference and to build a creative and cultural future.
In all of this, excellence will be a key word. We want to give more people the chance to experience amazing culture close to where they live – whether that is a village, a town or a city. We will keep on encouraging creative people and organisations that are already world-renowned and world-beating, but we will also be keeping one eye on the future by looking to support those who have the potential to excel. It is through outstanding and innovative performances, exhibitions and events that our next generation of artistic talent and new audiences will be inspired. Taxpayers and National Lottery players deserve the very best return on the investment of their money.
Tortoise prides itself on taking a long view of the news… so I will leave you with a very long view. This year, the Arts Council marks its 75th anniversary. When it was formed, its first chairman, the economist John Maynard Keynes, laid out his vision for the organisation in a radio address on the BBC. He said that one of the jobs of the Arts Council was to give “courage, confidence and opportunity”.
His words still resonate with me all these years later. I believe we should have the courage to transform our country through culture, helping us to be happier and healthier, more excited and inspired. I believe we should restore the confidence of our communities by using creativity and culture to bring people together, support local economies and make our lives better. This is levelling-up in action. And I believe we should create the opportunity for every person’s individual creative talent to flourish wherever they live.
Courage, confidence and opportunity. Three extra words that we could etch on the windows of Blackpool Central Library. And all delivered through public investment in the arts and culture. It is an investment that will pay dividends today and for many years to come.
Photograph by David Jensen/Regents Park Theatre/Getty Images
Darren Henley is the chief executive of Arts Council England