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Darren Henley: Our new prime minister should grasp the opportunity to invest in the arts

Boris Johnson. Photo: Frederic Legrand/Shutterstock Boris Johnson. Photo: Frederic Legrand/Shutterstock
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Perhaps our new prime minister has more in common with his European counterparts than it appears at first glance.

When he made his first major speech in Manchester at the weekend, he chose to do it in a cultural institution, the Museum of Science and Industry, rather than next to a factory production line or in the glitzy office of a major accountancy firm. And he chose to highlight arts and culture as one of the four central pillars of his future plans.

European leaders such as Angela Merkel are as comfortable being photographed at an opera house as they are in a football stadium, but British political leaders have tended to be more reticent about publicly embracing the arts.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations with our European partners in the coming months, culture will have a central role in shaping our future. So, ahead of a budget this autumn, Boris Johnson’s zeal for the arts is a welcome boost. It offers a tantalising prospect for those of us who share his belief that culture can make a difference to everyone’s lives, no matter who they are or where they live.

Anyone who has walked the streets of Manchester over the past few weeks will have witnessed a city galvanised by the Manchester International Festival. It brought the creative world to Manchester and took Manchester’s creativity to the world. While he was there, Johnson was effusive in his description of the power of culture, the arts and our creative industries to change lives in towns, cities, rural and coastal communities.

He is right. Our country is famous for its creativity and innovation. Our artists, arts organisations, museums and libraries are renowned around the world. And our creative industries now contribute more to the UK economy than oil and gas, life sciences, aviation and the car industry combined.

But the argument isn’t just about economics. It’s about individual people and the places in which they live. Concert venues, art galleries, festivals, village halls, theatres, libraries and museums are the beating hearts that bring communities together. And the skilled professionals who work in culture – the artists, performers, creators, curators, and librarians – enable people to go on journeys of discovery on which they would never otherwise embark.

Being involved in the arts advances education, has a positive impact on health and well-being, supports innovation and technology, and helps gives villages, towns and cities a sense of their own identity. More than anything, creative activities change individual lives, giving us the possibility to see ourselves in new and exciting ways, to be bold and to be innovative.

Of course, it takes money to make this happen on a scale that makes a difference. But our nation’s creativity is surely something that is worth prioritising in the way our new prime minister has suggested. With more investment in the arts, we could benefit more lives in more places, more quickly. Now is the time to turn this tantalising prospect into a reality.

‘If arts education is good enough for Prince George, it’s good enough for all’ – Arts Council chief

Darren Henley is chief executive of Arts Council England

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