‘Why Sunderland’s an exciting and vibrant place’ by new Arts Council chief Darren Henley

Darren Henley, chief executive of the Arts Council.
Darren Henley, chief executive of the Arts Council.
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Since I started my new job as Chief Executive of Arts Council England just six weeks ago, I have been clocking up the miles travelling the length and breadth of the country talking to artists and performers, as well as leaders of arts organisations, venues, museums, galleries and libraries.

I was lucky enough to spend a day in Sunderland at the National Glass Centre.

The National Glass Centre is at the cutting edge of glassmaking and ceramics.

The National Glass Centre is at the cutting edge of glassmaking and ceramics.

It’s one of the Arts Council’s National portfolio organisations, which receive regular funding over a long-term period.

You probably don’t need me to tell you what a gem the National Glass Centre is.

It’s a fantastic combination of museum and gallery on the one hand – and a living, breathing hub for creativity and learning on the other.

Under the wise and far-sighted stewardship of the University of Sunderland, the National Glass Centre celebrates Sunderland’s long history of glassmaking, which dates back more than 1,300 years.

Washington Arts Centre has just been awarded a major grant from the Arts Council England and the National Lottery.

Washington Arts Centre has just been awarded a major grant from the Arts Council England and the National Lottery.

The gallery is at the cutting edge of glassmaking and ceramics - filled with truly stunning contemporary pieces from artists such as Emma Woffenden, Richard William Wheater and Jeff Zimmer, and of course from renowned Sunderland-based glass artists such as Jim Maskrey and Jeffrey Sarminento.

And then because the building is operated as part of the University of Sunderland, it is also home to 130 students studying glass and ceramics.

They range from teenagers starting out on their professional careers at the Foundation degree level right through to expert students studying for doctorate qualifications.

On top of that, thousands of schoolchildren take part in education events each year and crowds of adults and children turn up to the daily free glass blowing demonstrations.

The Great North Passion at Bents Park in South Shields last year.

The Great North Passion at Bents Park in South Shields last year.

The University of Sunderland is one of the best examples in England of a growing breed of higher education institutions that are working in partnership with the Arts Council and their local authority – in this case Sunderland City Council – to ensure that arts and cultural activities thrive in their local area.

From this partnership was born the Sunderland Cultural Partnership two years ago and its recently published Cultural Strategy.

It’s the Arts Council’s ambition to support centres of creative excellence across the country, in places like Sunderland.

We want artists of all disciplines to be able to live and work in their communities, producing original work that will enrich our national culture.

We also want to see an interchange between our great capital city London and other parts of England that can be more mutually beneficial – if you like, more of a two-way street.

This is something the Arts Council has been looking at for some time.

We’ve been looking at the impact of our work, and how best to develop regional centres that can contribute to the cultural ecology.

And that can – between them – reach more people for whom there is currently less provision.

We’ve made progress. Look at the cultural evolution of cities here in the North East like Newcastle and Gateshead.

Their growth has been driven on the back of sustained investment in arts and culture.

And look at the work of Cultural Spring here in Sunderland. It’s one of 20 Arts Council England ‘Creative People and Places’ programmes across England.

Supported by the University of Sunderland, Sunderland Music, Arts & Culture Trust and The Customs House Trust, Cultural Spring has a 10-year plan to change the way that people in this great city take part in, create and enjoy great art and culture.

At the Arts Council, we have invested £2 million in the project to help bring Cultural Spring’s ambitious vision to life.

Already, Cultural Spring has given 13,000 people here and in South Shields the chance to get involved in artistic activities that they may not previously have thought possible.

Who can forget The Great North Passion just over a year ago?

That’s just one of the ways in which Cultural Spring is already making a difference.

And they’ve got a 10-year plan to continue changing lives, so they will be making a big difference for a long time to come.

Earlier this year we awarded Arts Centre Washington over £257,000 so it could upgrade its facilities – recognising we need to make sure artists and audiences have the best possible opportunity to experience the arts.

These improvements will help the Arts Centre in Washington to become a thriving and sustainable arts hub.

We are keen to see more excellent artistic activities happening in more towns and cities across England.

So, last week we announced a significant shift in how the Arts Council invests the National Lottery revenue that we distribute.

We’ve already increased out investment of Lottery revenue outside London up to 70 per cent.

But, we are going to do better still. So, by the end of 2018, we will increase this by a further 5 per cent points.

At least 75 per cent of the Arts Council’s National Lottery revenue will be invested outside London.

To have more success stories in the North East, we need the government to continue to make a significant commitment to investing in arts and culture.

It has been crucial to the cultural growth of our country, alongside National Lottery funds.

There’s strong evidence that investment in the arts does so much for every citizen and every community, and for our nation.

The arts fuel our creative industries, which are now growing faster than many other areas of the economy.

They return £4 for every £1 invested. And they build a narrative of national progress and give us an international presence.

At the Arts Council, we will make the best possible case for central government funding for the arts, for museums, and for libraries.

But we also need the support of our friends in local government.

They remain the largest investors in art and culture. They support the everyday resources of each community’s shared life.

We understand that Local Authorities have to make tough decisions.

But we know how much they value the role that culture brings to their communities.

So, at the Arts Council, we want to work closely in partnership with Local Authorities across the country.

Sunderland is an exciting and vibrant place with big cultural and artistic ambitions.

I sensed a buzz around the city about those ambitions – including the plans of the MAC Trust to transform the old fire station into a cultural hub, and about Sunderland’s bid to be City of Culture in 2021.

The people who live here deserve to enjoy the very best art and culture that England has to offer.

Along with partners like the University of Sunderland and Sunderland City Council, the Arts Council is working to make this a reality.