Sunderland's Cultural Recovery - Arts Council Chief Executive on how arts and culture is key to city's Covid recovery

Arts Council England celebrates its 75th birthday this year. Here, its Chief Executive Darren Henley writes exclusively for the Sunderland Echo about the benefits of publicly funded arts and culture, and the role the organisation is playing in Covid recovery.

Saturday, 18th September 2021, 4:55 am

I have a real affinity for Sunderland – it’s a special place, built on generations of creativity and innovation.

I’m a regular visitor and admire the drive and ambition behind the city’s recent cultural renaissance.

The ‘Sunderland model’ brings together the cultural programmes of Sunderland City Council, University of Sunderland and the Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust into a single, independent and resilient delivery model – Sunderland Culture.

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Arts Council CEO Darren Henley on Sunderland's Cultural Recovery

I’m an advocate of this innovative way of operating and have used it on various occasions as an exemplar of how a city can pull together to ‘improve life for everyone through culture’ – Sunderland Culture’s stated objective.

The development of The Fire Station – where a new auditorium will open imminently – is a great example of how arts and culture can help rejuvenate and regenerate towns and cities.

The MAC Trust, led by Paul Callaghan with the support of John Mowbray and Graeme Thompson, backed by a supportive city council and Sunderland Culture, is transforming an area of Sunderland city centre into an arts and culture quarter. And it’s important to mention the sustained support for culture, across the city, from University of Sunderland under the leadership of its Vice Chancellor Sir David Bell.

This kind of collaborative working is very much one of the aims of Let’s Create, the Arts Council’s new strategy – enabling cultural communities to develop and thrive through place-based partnerships and bringing communities together.

Arts Council CEO Darren Henley

Of course, like towns and cities across the UK, Sunderland had to close its cultural venues last year. Across the country, theatres and music venues went dark, galleries and museums emptied, performances were cancelled. We faced a moment like no other in our 75-year history, one that threatened the existence of those organisations who have delighted audiences for so long.

Thankfully, the sector is reawakening, and it’s so encouraging to see cultural venues and organisations reopening.

Sunderland Culture’s venues – National Glass Centre, Arts Centre Washington and Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens – as well as Wearside’s other arts and culture venues and organisations have reopened too over recent weeks.

Arts Council CEO Darren Henley at Sunderland National Glass Centre

I think the last 18 months of closure and uncertainty have demonstrated a hunger and a greater understanding for what the arts contribute to everyday life.

During the dark days of lockdown, music, films, books, plays and dance provided entertainment, comfort and solace, particularly for those feeling lonely or isolated. People had time to re-engage in the arts, or developed a deeper appreciation of what they can bring to their lives.

It certainly helped that arts organisations found new ways of engaging audiences, particularly through virtual, online performances.

A word here for the arts organisations – such as The Cultural Spring, funded through the Arts Council’s Creative People and Places programme – who did not close, but who worked even harder to increase participation in the arts within the areas they serve.

Theatre director Marie Nixon cutting the ribbon at the reopening of the Sunderland Empire after 18 months closed due to the pandemic

I know that in Sunderland and South Tyneside The Cultural Spring commissioned local artists and practitioners to produce thousands of art packs that were delivered through partners such as gentoo and Age Concern Tyneside South (ACTS) to those feeling particularly isolated. The Cultural Spring also commissioned online workshops and virtual craft sessions, not just creating activities for so many people, but creating much-needed work for artists and art


Libraries also played a huge role in offering support and solace to their communities during the pandemic and it is very exciting to hear that the new central library, Culture House, will open in 2022 as part of the regeneration of Sunderland city centre that is being driven by the city council’s Chief Executive Patrick Melia.

It promises to be a vibrant, creative and engaging space for residents and visitors and a splendid addition to the new cultural infrastructure of the city.

However, for those thousands of arts and cultural organisations, companies and practitioners who couldn’t pivot to produce alternative offerings, 2020 and 2021 have been extremely challenging.

It has been our job at the Arts Council to support and advise as many of these as possible.

The new auditorium at The Fire Station is due to open soon

Never during our 75 years has arts funding been more urgently needed or gratefully received than during the past 12 months.

When Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden developed the Culture Recovery Fund, backed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the Arts Council was one of the organisations charged with distributing the funding.

Payments from this unprecedented £2billion cash injection have helped to keep arts organisations alive and have saved many jobs.

In Sunderland alone, the Arts Council has invested more than £3.2million through two rounds of Culture Recovery funding – with a further £1.38million going to the MAC Trust through the Cultural Recovery Fund Kickstart programme, which is being invested in The Fire Station Auditorium.

Among those benefitting from Culture Recovery Fund support were Boardwalk Leisure Ltd; Independent; Regeneration NE; Theatre Space North East; I-Stage; The Bunker; Sunderland Culture and Pop Recs. I particularly wanted to mention Pop Recs as I’m aware of the great work going on at their High Street West HQ, and that Dave Harper, for so long the driving force at Pop Recs, sadly passed away last month. My condolences to Dave’s family, his many

friends and colleagues.

Just as the MAC Trust has done with The Fire Station, Pop Recs has brought an unused, historic Sunderland building back to life to create a cultural hub.

Arts Council’s heritage

The decision to grant our first Royal Charter in 1946 was born out of the belief of Winston Churchill’s government that the arts would lift the nation’s

spirits and give hope to people as the country recovered from the dark days of the Second World War.

Seventy-five years later, our artists and cultural organisations are still playing a big part in lifting our spirits, in bringing our communities together, and in giving us a sense of pride about where we live, work and play.

Whatever you personally love – be it theatre, festivals, music, museums, galleries, or dance – there really is something for everyone in the huge range of creative work that we help to bring alive in towns and cities like Sunderland.

I’m proud the Arts Council has played a part in Sunderland’s recent cultural regeneration.

The £3.2m we’ve invested in the city through the Culture Recovery Fund is part of a much larger investment totalling more than £9m that we’ve made in Sunderland since 2018.

That includes grants from a range of support programmes including the Thriving Communities Fund and the Arts Council Collection – it also includes regular investment such as Sunderland Culture’s National Portfolio support and our support for Sunderland Music Education Hub.

These are exciting times for Sunderland. The Fire Station Auditorium will open this year with a fantastic opening programme; while Pop Recs will host its first live performances, and The Culture House will open next year on Keel Square.

And as we celebrate our 75th birthday, we look forward to continuing the Arts Council’s rewarding relationship with the city and helping to create happier lives on Wearside.

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Culture House is being built as part of the Riverside development