Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley holds out a friendly hand to the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, in his column for us this week.
His tone is generous – “Boris Johnson’s zeal for the arts is a welcome boost” – and inclusive: “It offers a tantalising prospect for those of us who share his belief that culture can make a difference” (my italics).
There’s a certain amount of wishful thinking to this, but also some realpolitik: Johnson is keen to be seen as a politician with a vision and Henley is attempting to underline the part of his vision in which he has highlighted the role of culture.
Or, as Johnson said in his Manchester speech on July 27: “People love Manchester because of the fantastic arts and entertainment here… We need to help places everywhere to strengthen their cultural and creative infrastructure, the gathering places that give a community its life.”
There is also a clear subtext to Henley’s final line: “Now is the time to turn this tantalising prospect into a reality.” The Arts Council chief might as well be saying: “Okay Boris, there’s a spending review coming up, now put your money where your mouth is.”
There will be many in the arts world – most of whom do not share Johnson’s politics (whatever they are at this moment) – who will feel uneasy at this kindly approach, but it could pay off.
Johnson likes to be loved. Cultural investment delivers big, visible returns for relatively small sums of money – it is a cheap win at a time when Johnson will need both wins and cheapness. As Mayor of London, he had eight years’ first-hand experience of witnessing the galvanising power of culture and the creative industries, including the wonder of the London 2012 Opening Ceremony. He sees culture as being an intrinsic part of national identity. And, perhaps more importantly, it is part of his own public identity. He presents and identifies himself as a cultured individual – his book on Shakespeare, The Riddle of Genius, is due to be published in 2020 (four years late).
It would not be a good look, to say the least, if that book hit the shelves a matter of months after he had delivered a funding round that had decimated the modern-day inheritors of a theatre sector that Shakespeare helped build.
As much as the arts world might have to hold its collective nose while doing it, there is a genuine opportunity for the sector with Johnson, if we can stomach it.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith