Arts Council chief executive on his love for South Tyneside and how culture will help area bounce back from covid

Arts Council England has announced that South Tyneside will be one of 54 priority places nationally where they want to develop new opportunities for investment.

Sunday, 3rd October 2021, 10:22 am
Darren Henley, Arts Council England's chief executive
Darren Henley, Arts Council England's chief executive

Here its chief executive DARREN HENLEY writes exclusively for the Shields Gazette about what that means, the benefits of publicly funded arts and culture, and the role the organisation is playing in Covid recovery.

One of the joys of my job is travelling the country, experiencing performances, exhibitions and gigs, and getting a real understanding of what a difference arts and culture make to our villages, towns and cities.

While that hasn’t been possible over the past 18 months, I have vivid memories of thoroughly enjoying a Customs House pantomime, and my fish and chips at legendary South Shields chippie Colmans.

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The Word, South Shields.

I plan to do so again this December!

Looking to the future…

We have just announced that South Tyneside will be one of 54 priority places across England, and one of 15 in the North, where we want to develop new opportunities for investment.

This exciting news is part of our Let’s Create strategy, which we wrote before the pandemic, but our vision still holds true – that creativity and culture can play a part in levelling up the country.

The Customs House in South Shields, where Darren Henley has taken in the annual pantomime.

South Tyneside is a place with a huge opportunity to drive up arts and cultural engagement from a relatively low base, and build on the work of projects such as the recent summer park events which offered a free family-friendly programme of live music and entertainment over the school holidays.

In recent years The Word, the national centre for the written word, has opened and transformed both the libraries and cultural offer in South Shields. The Customs House alongside key events such as the summer parade and the successful South Tyneside festival events show the potential for further growth of culture and creativity in the borough.

We’ll now be working closely with local authority and cultural sector leaders to make the most of this opportunity.

South Tyneside Council has long been an important partner with us and I’m delighted at its commitment to this new initiative. The council understands the difference arts and culture can make in places like South Shields, Jarrow and Hebburn.

As Cllr Joan Atkinson, Deputy Leader of South Tyneside Council with special responsibility for culture and leisure, said: “Culture plays a hugely significant role in making South Tyneside such a special place to live, work and visit. It also has a positive impact on the health and well-being of residents, not to mention its contribution to the economy, jobs and tourism.

“Being a priority place unlocks much-needed investment and support and this will go a long way in helping the borough to recover. It will also enable us to improve and showcase our cultural offer to wider audiences, giving more people the opportunity to enjoy inspiring high-quality cultural experiences that make a positive difference to their lives.”

As we emerge from the pandemic the creative and cultural sector will play a vital role in our country’s recovery.

There’s no doubt this has been a difficult year and a half, and one sector affected more than most has been arts and culture.

Across the country theatres and music venues went dark, galleries and museums emptied, performances were cancelled. This year marks the Arts Council’s 75th anniversary, and at no point in our history have we faced a moment like this, one that threatened the existence of those organisations who have delighted audiences for so long.

Thankfully, the sector is reawakening, and it’s encouraging to see cultural venues and organisations reopening.

I was so pleased to hear that Ray Spencer has been able to reopen The Customs House and has a busy programme at the venue for what’s left of 2021 – including Rapunzel, this year’s panto, of course.

During these difficult times it has been our role to help as many cultural organisations as possible survive. One of the ways we’ve done so is distributing the government’s Culture Recovery Fund, which was backed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Never during our 75 years has arts funding been more urgently needed or gratefully received than during the past 12 months. Payments from this unprecedented £2billion cash injection have helped to keep arts organisations alive and have saved many jobs.

Across South Tyneside, the Arts Council has invested almost £600,000 through two rounds of Culture Recovery funding.

The Customs House was one of those recipients, benefitting from both rounds of Culture Recovery Fund support. Other organisations and companies we supported were Jarrow Hall, The Creative Seed CIC and Awesome Since 1984.

The Culture Recovery Fund support is just part of the picture in South Tyneside. Further financial investment we’ve given to organisations in the borough totals almost £1million across the last three years. This support has come from a range of different funds, including our own Emergency Response Fund.

Seventy five years ago Winston Churchill helped launch the Arts Council, firm in the belief the arts would lift the nation’s spirits and give hope to people as the country emerged from six dark years of the Second World War.

All these years later, it is my hope and belief that the arts can not only lift the nation’s spirits, but play a leading role in getting local and national economies back to where they were pre-pandemic.

The Culture Recovery Fund has been a lifeline, but it’s now time to look ahead and we need to continue to invest in places like South Tyneside to ensure everyone across the UK can access arts and culture.

Darren Henley OBE, October 2021