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Hanging out on the third floor of a dimly lit multi-storey car park with contraband alcohol and the risk of arson may not be quite the salubrious surroundings associated with the future of British arts and culture.

But for Arts Council England Chief Executive, Darren Henley OBE, this is exactly the exciting, edgy and ingenious take on creativity that he champions.

'I was in Sunderland on top of a car park last week watching a fantastic Faust dance piece by Southpaw Dance Company,' he recalls. 'There was lots of fire and it was a high-quality piece of work.

'One of the things for me is that no part of the country has a monopoly on creative great works so you get to see amazing things in unexpected places.'


Faust by Southpaw Dance Company

Visiting those places has been at the forefront of Henley's charter since taking on the Chief Executive's role 18 months ago, fresh from his position as Managing Director at Classic FM. Then, he pledged to spend half of his working week travelling the length and breadth of the country meeting creatives and seeing their art happen. Indeed, if dedication were measured in miles, Darren Henley would win the top prize. 'I've kept my promise and I spend more than 50 per cent of my time outside London, which is great,' he nods. 'I've seen more art in more places around the country than I suspect anyone else. Doing a job like this, to my mind, is a bit of a lifestyle choice because I love art and culture so it is great to have the opportunity to see the best of what is being made around the country.'

During this, Arts Council England's 70th anniversary year, Summer visits have included the SO Festival in Skegness and Coventry's Festival of Imagineers – a collaboration of artists, engineers and designers – in September. 'There's really high-quality work just happening on the street and you can see the look on people's faces; they are just going out to do their shopping on a wet Saturday and they've got a really excellent piece of art happening in front of them!'


Mú by Transe Express, SO Festival 2016. Photo © Alan Fletcher

Listening to the highlights of his recent visits, it's hard not to be insanely jealous of the merry-go-round of cultural nights out, interval canapés and complimentary drinks. But this is to forget the carefully crafted initiatives, community building, economic investment and pure hard graft that has gone into ensuring that projects come together in the first place.

'If you look at Hull City of Culture 2017, I believe that that will change the perception that everybody around the country and the world has of Hull as a place,' explains Henley. 'I think it will change the perceptions of people who live in Hull and of what they see happening in the streets of their city. I think that's very exciting – the possibilities of what will happen not just for the economic regeneration of a place but in terms of artistic creativity in a place.

'I want the people living there to be more demanding of us as an investor in art and culture: I want them to be able to say "these things should happen in Hull".'

It is the collaborative nature of such projects that is at the heart of Henley's vision for the arts. His recent book, The Arts Dividend (Elliot & Thompson), argues the case for arts for everyone, clearly defining the benefits (health, innovation, economic prosperity) that public investment in the arts brings for all.

'Art and culture is about giving a heart and soul to a town or a city', he says. 'Place-shaping and place-making is really important and having that sense of those great towns and cities. Manchester is an example of where there have been a couple of decades of sustained investment in art and culture and that has been important in driving that city forward. More than ever now we need to build our reputation on the world stage.'


The Fliphouse by Lost in Translation Circus, SO Festival 2016. Photo © Alan Fletcher

Speaking in the shadow of the Brexit vote and political wranglings over the future of the UK, Henley's resolve to build Britain's reputation as a leader in the arts is as strong as ever.

'I think when you go around the world and ask people what they think of with England, they talk about our arts and culture and heritage,' he says, 'whether that be Shakespeare or Adele or our world-class conservatoires training people in music and drama. It's our theatre, films, books… for a relatively small place in the world, our cultural output is huge.'

It’s not clear, he adds, how leaving the EU will play out. Over the last few months, Arts Council England has gathered as much data as possible to share with the Government and ensure that, as negotiations go on, art and culture are very much at the table.

'For example, in the Department for International Trade, it's really very important that arts and culture is seen as a very valuable sector,' says Henley. 'Creative industries are growing twice as fast as financial services, so this is big business for this country and America is actually our biggest export country, so not affected by leaving the EU.

'As well as countries like France and Germany, Spain and Holland – which are important to us – equally, we need to build relationships in New Zealand and Canada and Australia. We signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korea just a few weeks ago and we've been doing a lot of work in India and that will continue and opportunities in China as well. These are all big markets for us.'


The Big Feast 2016, a street theatre festival hosted by Appetite. Photo © Chris Patrick Photography

For Henley, though, there is a clear link between the international exchange of ideas and the seedlings from which these ideas grow, in our communities, schools, towns and cities around the UK.

'It's very important that children and young people get to see and hear and experience the highest quality art and culture and they get to meet actors and directors and see their work,' he says.

'It's absolutely vital that all young people are offered the chance to learn music and dance, drama and design to a very high level and I'm very passionate that those who come from tough economic backgrounds are given the same opportunities as those who are lucky enough to be born into wealthier families.'

Some of these tough backgrounds are being targeted by Arts Council England's Creative People and Places initiative, now in its third round of funding since it began in 2013.

With investment of £37million National Lottery funding in 21 projects around Britain, audiences have been able to experience arts up close and personal – sometimes for the first time – created by their community for their community.

'We've just announced another set of £6million funding [for seven Creative People and Places projects] and I'm very proud of the work that we do,' says Henley. 'I was recently in Stoke-on-Trent where the Appetite initiative has brought arts to the streets and talked to one lady who said: "Things like this don't happen in Stoke" and that was fantastic. I've heard that sort of refrain in St Helen's and Sunderland and small places where they are doing amazing work where there wasn't an arts infrastructure. Putting opportunity in those places is a programme that we are really proud of.'


The Enchanted Chandelier (Maudits Sonnants) by Transe Express hosted by Appetite, Stoke-on-Trent, August 2016. Photo courtesy of Clara Lou Photography

Alongside the recent budget announcement of £622million per year lottery and grant aid for 2018 to 2022, the future of arts innovation in the UK looks distinctly rosy at a time of national uncertainty and caution. More funding has been directed outside London (by 2018, this will be a 75/25 per cent split compared to the current 70/30 share) and the premise is very much that arts are for all.

'After all, everybody pays their taxes and everyone across the country plays the National Lottery,' reasons Henley. 'So every time you buy a ticket, you are helping art and culture and every time you pay your taxes, you are paying towards money that we are distributing.'

In the meantime, though, there is little time to rest in the Bloomsbury-based office. Henley's bags are almost permanently packed and he is a self-confessed aficionado of the National Rail train timetable.

'I'm off to Coventry and Salford next, then up to Yorkshire,' he says, enthusiastically. 'I am an advocate for arts and culture and I am able to have conversations with Government ministers and senior civil servants.

'I can do that so much more authentically by having seen the work happening and I don't anticipate that the journey will ever really end.'

Header photo: Darren Henley © Philippa Gedge