Arts head: Graham Sheffield, director of arts, British Council
Thursday, January 09, 2014
Posted by: Minji Kim
'Business comes with trust; the arts build trust' says Graham Sheffield, Director of Arts at British Council. In his interview with the Guardian published on January 7, 2014, Sheffield talks about the effects of 'soft power' of the arts and the challenges involving international exchange. Read the full interview on the Guardian website, or reproduced below.
Hi Graham, could you tell me a little bit about the British Council?
We are the UK's organisation for international cultural relations, and we are a registered charity. Our core purpose is the building of trust and mutual understanding for the UK overseas. We do this through our three business areas: English and exams (the teaching and examining of English); education and society, which is the internationalising of higher education into and out of the UK, as well as a programme of work in the area of societal development overseas; and the arts.
Our turnover is in excess of £800m, of which less than 20% is now grant from the public purse. The rest comes from self-generated income through exams, partner income, teaching and contract work, through the EU and other government contracts. We answer to the Foreign Office, through whom our public money comes, but they are not a majority stakeholder in the financial sense of that word. We broadly align ourselves with strategic UK international objectives, even though, like Arts Council England for example, we are at arm's length and independent from the government of the day.
Because so much of its work is outside the UK, the British Council's profile and remit at home is not always obvious – what can you clear up about that?
One of the things our trustees are very clear about is that we have to be more assertive in articulating our work and purpose at home in the UK, and they are right. The arts are very useful for this, and so we are putting a lot of effort into being more visible and confident here.
As I said before, we are an arm's length body, a charity, and less than 20% publicly funded. But our mission has to be about supporting and amplifying broad UK interests in our areas of work, and demonstrably providing benefit back to the UK, which I am confident we do.
The more confident we are about our effectiveness, the more trust the government of the day will have in our contribution to important agendas of diplomacy, of building trust, of education and research, of learning English, of skills for employability, of stability and tolerance within societies, of new and sustainable ideas for this uncertain world. It's broadly a good relationship with government, but of course we will sometimes take a different view in some situations.
You're not a big believer in the phrase "soft power" – why so?
No disrespect to Joseph Nye, who coined the phrase, and I can see what he was after – the trouble is that the effects of "soft power" are neither soft, nor are they or can they be about power. The impact of the arts on lives can be nothing less than transformative and long-term. The deployment of the arts in cultural diplomacy can never be any more than about influence, however profound, and not power. We need a more accurate descriptor.
What role can British arts play, specifically, in the UK's political relations with other countries? I imagine that Russia and China can be tricky bedfellows…
I think the arts can be very influential and demonstrably so. There is a clear causal link between the gradual (albeit fragile) improvement in relations between the UK and Russia and the regrowth of cultural exchange between the two countries. Much of this has involved important work by the British Council behind the scenes. But as with all these initiatives these days, a commitment to reciprocity and mutuality is vital; it's not about how wonderful we are in the UK. That's counterproductive in every way.
With China, there's no doubt that the Chinese are fascinated by the arts and heritage in the UK – as well as our brands. The challenges are, one, to reach enough of the population and, two, to paint a truer picture of contemporary life and business in the UK than you get from Downton Abbey.
What needs to change in that respect?
I just wish that our VIP delegations made more of the cultural dimension; it's a subtler way of doing business and achieving the inevitable economic purposes of such trips. Business comes with trust; the arts build trust. Moreover, the Chinese are putting such an emphasis on the cultural side of their economy, it's a strong card for us to play.
Even with countries with whom we have differences of view in matters of personal freedoms and freedom of expression, I believe it is important to continue engagement. You get nowhere by cutting your lines of communication, and the arts can often provide you with platforms to air and debate difficult issues, where politicians are unable to go.
Jo Caird has written about some of the issues facing Western cultural exports in China, namely that ticket prices are so steep. What are the other big challenges to exporting British arts?
Access to the arts for everyone is important whichever society you live in. We are still – just – fortunate enough in the UK to have a subsidised arts sector that enables a lot of art to be made available either free or at an affordable price. Even the commercial sector is sensitive to this. Sponsorship and private support also helps us in the UK.
Overseas, such mixed-model arts economies are often less developed and sophisticated, and that's one of the areas we deal with in our work: how to find the right audience; how to get the economic model right to attract them; how to make work freely available in the public space; how to attract sponsors and partners.
But touring work, whether performance or visual arts is expensive. The arts need external funding in these circumstances. Luckily some art forms like literature and film are more portable. Other challenges are more to do with finding the right work for the right place – to be sensitive in sending dance to certain areas of the Middle East, where some aspects of some work may cause discomfort.
What are your views on the newly-dubbed MINT quartet of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey?
It's interesting that we have big plans at various stages of development for each of these countries over the next six years. The cultural sector in each is at a very different stage of development, and each requires a distinctive approach. But there's no doubt of their appetite and the potential in each place – and also the challenges.
In Nigeria, for example, the physical infrastructure and governance is very weak, and in Turkey of course you have the politics and also a worrying degree of mistrust of the UK. So you have to work around these issues, be focused in what you do, and give artistic opportunities to those countries within the UK as well. Mexico is first among them, with a focus year of two-way traffic in 2015, and we have longer plans for Indonesia, but that needs more preparation time.
Graham Sheffield is director of arts at the British Council – follow him on Twitter @GSheffieldArts