Arts Council England has made a difference in its pioneering programmes that reach out to neglected communities
The regenerated fruit market in Hull, city of culture 2017.
The regenerated fruit market in Hull, city of culture 2017. Photograph: Alamy

Over the past two years, the European referendum and the continuing argument about how we want to see our country evolve have exposed great differences of belief and opportunity in British society. But at a time when the cohesion of society is threatened by visible inequalities in wealth, housing, health and education, the arts provide a place where ideas can be debated, explored and developed and new propositions can be put forward.

The arts are intrinsically a social medium. They are both personal and public at the same time. We enjoy them as individuals and collectively, in cinemas, concert halls, theatres, museums, libraries and other places where people gather together. The arts, especially those funded by national and local government or the national lottery, play a key role in the public sphere.

In my first year as chair of Arts Council England, I have been travelling across the country and seeing first-hand the transformative effect the arts have on people and communities. Art can change how communities are perceived and how people see themselves. The outstanding example is Hull, which has recently completed its year as city of culture.

Hull was not short of culture before 2017, but the combination of strong local leadership, an injection of investment and the invaluable contribution of volunteers, made it more than just the location for a series of arts events – an entire city became galvanised. For the first time, space was created for members of the public to come together to share different ideas and values and to challenge and debate. The city today feels more confident and the community more united – they’re already working together to make sure the legacy of 2017 endures.

The role of the arts in the public sphere is to be inclusive, not exclusive. The Arts Council wants to give as wide a range of people as possible access to what the arts have to offer. That means we need to make sure our work and our workforce are more representative of the nation as a whole and that we need to work harder to reach more people. Last summer, we announced that £170m more of our funding would be spent outside London over four years and that nearly 200 newer, smaller, more diverse organisations, including libraries and museums, would be joining our more than 800-strong portfolio, which receive regular funding from us. These organisations will serve audiences right on their doorsteps, bringing life-changing experiences to people of all ages.

We have also developed a pioneering programme, Creative People and Places, specifically for areas with traditionally low engagement in art and culture. These community-led projects are now in 21 places such as Stoke, St Helens, Barking and Dagenham, East Durham and Blackpool. Through this programme alone ,we have reached 1.45 million people who would not ordinarily participate in art and culture – and we have seen that where we use our influence, we can make a difference.

The arts also make a critical contribution to our nation’s economic success. Last December, the Centre for Economics and Business Research forecast that the UK’s economic prospects over the long term remain strong because of our creativity and our tech skills. Our young, diverse population is a national asset, but socioeconomic barriers deprive many young people of opportunity.

This year, I will spend much of my time working with colleagues to understand the ways in which creativity can play a larger part in the lives of young people and in helping remove social barriers to give all children a better chance to progress.

I am convinced that in years to come there will be an ever-greater recognition of the value, and the need, for the arts in all our lives. Our job at Arts Council England is to respond imaginatively to that need by supporting the very best experiences that the arts, in all their variety and richness, can offer to individuals and communities in every corner of the land.

Nicholas Serota is chair of Arts Council England

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