Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Diplomacy Through Culture: Fomenting Cultural Understanding Through the Arts

On Friday 27 January at 10:30 at the Casa Mapfre in Cartagena, Graham Sheffield spoke to Peter Florence.

Graham Sheffield is the cultural director for the British Council. He is in charge of making sense of a disperse arts program that spans 110 countries. His core mission: To build trust and enlightenment between cultures.

Sheffield describes the relationship between the British Council and British Foreign Office as one of a "stretchy arm"; the former being in charge of cultivating cultural relations and the latter handling political and trade relations. He clarifies that the role of the British Council has evolved over the years so that it is no longer solely concerned with promoting British culture and offering English classes, but rather aims more toward mutual dialogue and understanding through culture.

Having been a producer for BBC 3, the director of the Southbank Centre, and then the director of the Barbican Centre, Sheffield found that it was possible to work implementing "curated ideals," which implies easing audiences into trying new things. He notes that innovation is necessary for survival in the arts, because audiences will not remain satisfied for long with tried and true offerings. Ironically, sometimes productions that appear to be the safest bets have turned out to be the biggest flops.

Peter Florence comments that all art is dissident, in the sense that it needs to mark a difference from what has come before, and that risk-taking therefore is a key part of the artistic process. Sheffield nods in agreement and adds that the British Council aims to foment innovation, excellence, diversity through different actions that include cultivating new talent and drawing in new audiences. They note that audiences in Britain and other countries are increasingly savvy and sophisticated as a direct result of access to the Internet, which has allowed exposure to different artistic proposals.

Both Sheffield and Florence agree that subsidies for the arts are a double-edged sword. To qualify for subsidies, artists need to take risks and come up with innovative proposals. Sheffield feels that subsidies should be granted when the risks taken are in benefit of the public. Taken to an extreme, however, when the arts that are wholly funded with public monies, he considers that this tends to lead to stagnation. If arts income comes solely from sales, then processes of "extreme Darwinism" take over, killing off projects that might have flourished with a bit of encouragement. The bottom line, Sheffield notes, is that all artistic productions lose money; ticket sales can never compensate for the cost of development and performance, which means that some sort of subsidy system is always needed. Both Sheffield and Florence have noticed that there has been an influx of private investment in the arts, resulting in a "partnering or mixed economy." In general they view this as a positive thing, while noting the some investors "need to be better partners." This also raises the issue of objectionable sponsors. British Petroleum-BP has been a long-time patron of the arts but questions have been raised about the environmental risks and damage of its oil exploration and production activities. Nonetheless Sheffield considers that this should not disqualify the company from sponsoring the arts.

The British Council operates all over the world, including in some war torn countries. In these countries the need to invest in cultural development is more important than ever, as part of the rebuilding process, says Sheffield. A long term inter-country commitment to develop artistic projects is part of that process.

He observes wryly that currently the public places more trust in cultural institutions and expressions than in private institutions like banks or the government. "Politics have become debased," he says.

As he speaks about the work he does and its importance, Sheffield's enthusiasm shows. Graham Sheffield is a man with a mission: to foment mutual cultural understanding through the arts.

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