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The Arts Council at 70: A researcher's view

Posted on 03/10/2016

In May this year, King’s College London hosted the annual Cultural Trends Conference. The topic of the afternoon was the 70th Anniversary of the Arts Council.

Cultural Trends is an academic journal that is committed to the principle that cultural policy should be rooted in empirical evidence. To this end, it champions better information about the cultural sector and its widespread dissemination. These aims are shared by colleagues of mine here at King’s. Many of the articles in the journal examine the ways in which evidence does (or does not) inform cultural policy here in the UK and abroad. The history of cultural policy is one important aspect of this. Again, this is an area where the aims of Cultural Trends and King’s overlap. Last year King's published Step by step: arts policy and young people 1944–2014: a Cultural Enquiry examining the history of policy relating to young people and the arts.

For the Cultural Trends conference, we replicated a format that we used to gather data for Step by step. Each theme of the conference was the subject of a Witness Seminar: a format designed to explore subjects in contemporary history that lack any substantive paper trail. Witness Seminars resemble a combination of a reunion and a group interview.

We explored three themes on the day: excellence, regionalism, and the use of evidence. We had a total of 11 Witnesses: Luke Rittner, Sandy Nairne, Naseem Khan, Ken Worpole, Jo Burns, Robert Hutchison, David Powell, Tim Challans, Andy Feist, Ann Bridgwood and Pauline Tambling. Each of these people have played a key role in formulating or influencing policy at the Arts Council in recent decades. They were kept in check by three expert session Chairs: Robert Hewison, Kate Oakley and Sara Selwood. I was delighted that Dame Liz Forgan could be our Keynote Speaker.

The transcripts from the event are now free to download here. They make for a fascinating read. Many themes emerged from the lively discussion: the role of certain individuals, the persistence of divisions between London and the regions, the use (and non-use) of research and evidence. For me, it’s sobering to realise how little changes in the world of cultural policy. The delights and frustrations I felt while working at the Arts Council myself between 2010 and 2013 seem to have been enjoyed and endured by many people in the sector.

Now that I’m working with King’s, it’s fascinating to shine a historical light on the Arts Council. We learned from Step by step that sometimes history repeats itself unnecessarily. I hope this conference, this transcript, and the research it will help provoke, will go some way to improving the delivery of cultural policy today through an understanding of how it was conducted in the past.

James Doeser is a Research Associate at King’s College London and a member of the Cultural Trends Editorial Advisory Board.

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