Arts and minds: chief Darren Henley on convincing government to invest in Arts Council England

Written by Colin Marrs on 26 February 2018 in Interview

Culture champion Arts Council England has fared better than some organisations dependent on public funds in recent years. But its chief executive is conscious of the need for the body to remain in tune with the nation as a whole, not just a metropolitan elite. Colin Marrs reports

Photographs by Paul Heartfield

Appropriately, perhaps, for a former Classic FM newsreader, Darren Henley sported a set of headphones as he sat in his office listening to George Osborne present his 2015 Spending Review. A year earlier, Henley had left the radio station – where he had risen to managing director – to become chief executive of the Arts Council. Osborne’s speech was music to the new boss’s ears.

The chancellor announced that while the Arts Council’s parent department, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (as it was then known) would see its funding cut by 20%, Henley’s organisation would receive small increases of £10m a year for the four years up to 2020. Then chair Peter Bazalgette described the settlement as “astonishing”. As we sit, two years on, in a quiet corner of the National Theatre, Henley’s description of his own reaction – “very pleased” – is surely an understatement.

“Everybody at that time was told to budget for a potential 40% reduction,” Henley recalls. “We had a series of scenarios, but the government recognised that there was a value in arts and culture, and therefore our revenue was maintained. That was really important. Our friends at the Treasury recognise good economic arguments, and the Arts Council had made a set of very good economic arguments for investment in arts and culture.”


Although Henley is too canny to say it, the generous 2015 Arts Council settlement partly reflected the socially liberal views of those, including then arts minister Ed Vaizey and Osborne, who made up the influential Notting Hill set. One result of the recent UK political turmoil has been a diminution of influence of that group of tireless modernisers within the Conservative Party. And Henley knows that he needs to keep remaking the case for arts investment.

“It’s not a job that has been completed,” he says. “We need to continue to make those arguments; there needs to continue to be a greater amount of investment in art and culture around the country. So, we will continue to make those arguments.

“We don’t want to have a country which is just full of places where you just have jobs and factories and things that make things. We need to make places across the country exciting and vibrant places that people want to live in.”

A politics graduate from the University of Hull, Henley holds up the city’s term as 2017 UK City of Culture as an example of how arts can play a crucial role in sparking economic and physical regeneration. “You’ve absolutely now seen a change in the place,” he says. “The city council invested in the built environment, so the public realm has improved enormously and it’s a nicer place to be.”

“But also, what you’re seeing now is people have an expectation of what they can have,” he continues. “So, nine out of 10 people who live in Hull went to a cultural activity in the first three months of the year, and that’s astounding. They’re so proud of their city now and it’s really changed the story that they can tell about their home.”

Henley was clearly moved by his return to the city to mark the opening of the City of Culture at New Year last year. “I was standing in the central square outside the city hall on the first of January,” he says. “The fireworks happened, and there was a fantastic projection, the story of Hull from the last 75 years was projected onto the buildings, and a sound and lightshow all around. It was amazing to look round and see people there with tears streaming down their faces because it was their place.”

Retaining the Arts Council’s level of government grant was all the more important because the organisation’s main source of income – the National Lottery, which provided £227m in 2016/17, set against £494m in grant income – has been falling. Lower sales from lottery tickets meant that income from the lottery was £40.9m lower than in the previous year, forcing the council to draw down some of its lottery reserves over coming years.

Henley is confident that his organisation can ride out the erratic nature of lottery receipts. “The vibrancy and the health of the National Lottery is really, really important to the Arts Council and to the arts and culture so we do need to see a strong National Lottery. Camelot has undertaken a strategic review and I’m hopeful we see that back in growth. That is where we need to get to.”

The 2015 settlement, although positive, followed major cuts to the Arts Council’s budget in the early years of the coalition government, and a further restructure in 2013. Administration costs have been slashed by 53% since 2010. Henley says that these changes mean “that among the lottery distributors we are among the most cost effective in terms of our costs”, adding that technology is helping to soften the impact of the cuts, and maintain service levels.

As an example, he points to Grantium, a new grant management portal, which he says has saved the organisation £1m. The Arts Council is also helping its grant recipients make the most of technology through a two-strand programme run by executive director of enterprise and innovation Francis Runacres. The first strand helps them become more efficient, while the second focuses on helping them deliver more artistic content through digital media.

“If you talk to anybody under 25, their entire world is through a phone or something in their hands, a device or a tablet,” Henley says. “We need to make sure that we, in the arts and culture world, are creating content that is relevant to that group – that’s really important.”

Initiatives by the National Theatre and Royal Opera House to beam performances to cinemas around the country are examples of how technology can bring arts to new audiences, he says.

Innovation also extends to exploring new methods of raising money. In 2016, the Arts Council, DCMS and the Heritage Lottery Fund launched a crowdfunding initiative to boost grants through match funding. In addition, the council works with private philanthropic bodies and Bank of America Merrill Lynch to offer loans aimed at providing an artistic, social and financial return.

“We are really interested in new methods,” Henley says. “I don’t think we’re ever going to stop being a grant-giving body, I’m not suggesting that, but I think having other things next to grant-giving is really, really important. Those sorts of projects are quite interesting for the future.”

"We need to understand – as many international businesses now do – that diversity is a major opportunity that we must embrace if we are to thrive"

In June last year the Arts Council responded to criticism from MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that it was too focused on London by shifting some of its funding away from the capital towards the regions. The agency boosted funding outside London by £170m between 2018 and 2022, partly paid for by a 3% reduction in payments to the four big arts organisations – The National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Southbank Centre.

Henley places great emphasis on the importance of regional arts projects. On taking office, he pledged to spend half of every week away from his London desk. He says proudly: “I have kept that promise, so I travel around all the time. So, I know anything you might want know about pre-booked advanced standard rail tickets in this country – anything you want to know about Premier Inns, I can tell you.”

While he admits his travel schedule is challenging, he says: “It’s what I signed up for and it’s the way I believe in doing it.” A two-day trip to Cumbria in January was a particularly long journey, but reflects the importance he places on rural as well as urban areas. And the approach is not just for show: according to Henley it would be impossible to do his job without it. “The quality of conversation you have, what you learn when you go and see things for yourself is really very important,” he says.

Henley also places great importance on promoting diversity – both within the Arts Council itself and the organisations it funds. In his 2016 book The Arts Dividend (one of more than 30 he has penned), he outlines his philosophy: “We need to understand – as many international businesses now do – that diversity is a major opportunity that we must embrace if we are to thrive.”

Figures in the latest Arts Council annual report show a mixed picture in terms of the progress the organisation has made in this area. The proportion of LGBT staff it employs has risen from around 2% in 2008 to almost 15% last year. In 2017, for the first time, this group overtook representation from black and minority ethnic groups, which has dropped from more than 15% in 2008 to around 12% last year. “We will always do what we can to make it better,” Henley says.  “We should be as good as or better than the national statistics.”

A quick glance at the make-up of the council’s executive board, shows that, in common with many other government departments and agencies, racial diversity has yet to be fully realised at the most senior level. Henley agrees that more needs to be done. “I think we need to do things where we’re putting people up from middle management into senior management roles,” he says.

“But I think also there’s a long-term pipeline, we need to make sure we’ve got people coming into the sector at the very youngest ages. So, I think things like apprenticeships and having conversations with people from all sorts of backgrounds to be able to say the arts and culture sector is somewhere where you could build a career for yourself is also really important.”

The Arts Council’s 2013 Creative Case for Diversity is one strand of that work – aimed at ensuring that the organisations it funds are taking a proactive approach to the issue. “We have done a lot of work about gathering data and have published a whole set of guides called the Culture Change Toolkit which actually are very practical guidelines for people in arts organisations,” he says. He adds that they explore issues such as: “How do you identify, and grow, and recruit diverse talent? How do you have more diverse leadership? How do you have more diverse boards? What do you do about collecting the data and then using that data?”

Henley is clear where he would like this focus to lead. “I would really like diversity to become unremarkable in the truer sense of the word, in that we no longer remark on it because actually it’s there in everything that we do,” he says. It is an aspiration that applies to artistic output as much as the composition of the arts community workforce, Henley adds. “The work we’re creating should also be representative, so what is being put on stage or happening in galleries, or in concert halls is representative of the way England looks and feels in the 21st century,” he says.

“Our friends at the Treasury recognise good economic arguments, and the Arts Council had made a set of very good economic arguments for investment in arts and culture”

Making the continued case within central government for the importance of the Arts Council’s work is no simple task and involves meeting with a large number of ministerial teams, Henley says. The agency receives most of its funding from DCMS, although around 16% of its grant is funnelled through from the Department for Education to promote music and cultural teaching in schools.

“We also have relationships in the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and in a post-Brexit world we’re building relationships with the Department for International Trade,” he says. “There is a strong argument that on the international stage, having high quality arts and culture is very, very important.”

Building multiple relationships across departmental boundaries means that the organisation is in a unique position to help the government’s approach to using the arts as an economic lever, according to Henley. “I think it’s very, very important we step back and work on a strategic level, and it’s not just a sort of scattered tactical observation,” he says.

But do the stresses of managing the Arts Council ever make Henley long for a life back in the private sector? Not at the moment, he says. “I think there’s a huge care and attention to detail that happens in the public sector, and that desire to make the right decision is absolutely core,” he says. “There are a set of values about changing people’s lives.  And, you know, that means when I get up in the morning, coming into work is really rewarding.”

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