Behind the scenes at the council

Over the past fortnight, a miasma of shock has descended on the design sector. It can only look on while the British Council, an institution held dear to it, forges ahead with plans to abolish its specialist sector departments, one of which is design.

There is almost unanimous agreement within the arts, design included, that the programme of exhibitions, festivals, performances and events organised by each of the council’s specialist sector – or ‘artform’ – departments, provides a valuable stepping stone for those in the arts, by supporting them at a critical time in their career.

The move will see specialist departments including design, architecture, visual arts, dance, drama and literature, among others, dissolved in favour of a single multidisciplinary unit – The Arts Innovation Team.

The design department, headed by Emily Campbell, director of design and architecture, is one of the departments to be dissolved. Campbell’s role will also go, yet her team has been responsible for promoting UK talent at the Milan furniture fair and Experimenta, the Lisbon design biennale. Meanwhile international exhibitions including Posh, Hometime, China and 21st Century Dandy has brought the work of designers including Peter Saville, Tom Dixon, Ben Kelly, Michael Marriott, Casson Mann, Cottrell and Vermeulen, Digit, Fat and Priestman Goode to audiences around the world.

So as jaws drop, the question on everyone’s lips is, why is the British Council making such an apparently outrageous move?

The reasons are unclear. A need to ‘review focus’ and to ‘develop larger-scale arts projects’ has been cited by both its chief executive, Martin Davidson, and director of arts and creativity, Venu Dhupa. But the British Council has so far remained vague about details of its restructuring, subsequent relocation of sector specialist staff, or what all of this actually means in terms of the council’s work. Indeed, Dhupa has attributed this to the fact that the council is about to consult on the matter. Redundancies and the loss of the current level and depth of expertise in sectors, however, have not been ruled out.

Reports late last year suggested that the council will eschew its traditional programme of specific events, such as art exhibitions and poetry readings, in favour of multidisciplinary projects that might encompass events such as a global youth forum aimed at discussing the nature of creativity. One report in particular likened this to the National Gallery ‘suddenly selling its paintings and spending the proceeds hosting conferences about art in modern society’.

Although the British Council has pledged continued support for events such as the Venice Biennale, and announced details of a consultation process to begin on 4 February, questions about its intentions prevail.

Several protesters point out that the fact that the restructuring has already happened, before the consultation, could render the whole process ineffectual. ‘If you restructure and remove the expertise prior to a consultation process, then that process becomes fairly meaningless,’ says one.

Dhupa says, ‘We are willing to talk about the ideas that people have on internationalism and how the arts can best promote cultural relations,’ but declines to detail just how this feedback will be used.

A leaked internal document revealed that the new multidisciplinary team is to refocus on ‘market intelligence, knowledge transfer, programme facilitation and a pioneering approach’ – what has been termed by those objecting as ‘nebulous management jargon’.

‘The whole point of the consultation is to speculate a bit more, in more detail with the arts, about what is appropriate for a cultural relations programme, but yes, it would appear to be shifting in favour of a cultural economy programme,’ says Campbell.

Helen Hamlyn Research Centre director Professor Jeremy Myerson, who sits on the British Council’s advisory panel for design and architecture, feels a shift towards a multidisciplinary output could mean that design will ‘get lost’ among more prominent arts sectors, such as the visual arts.

‘Up until now, design and architecture have been led by a strong constituency and a recognised figurehead. Without this, there is a danger that design and architecture will get lost in the mix and fall off the radar. We’ve already seen how little a role design has played in Liverpool European Capital of Culture. Design and architecture need to know what the British Council is contemplating. It has had a lot of success with its [design] work overseas, but if some of that message is going to be lost, it could be quite serious. The British Council hasn’t even consulted its own advisory panel on this. It’s in danger of being rather amorphous,’ says Myerson.

Council matters

• The British Council is the UK’s public diplomacy and cultural relations organisation for overseas territories, often described as a ‘cultural extension of the Foreign Office’

• Its ‘artform’ departments cover design, architecture, art, dance, drama, film, digital content, literature, music and visual arts, and have programmes in more than 110 countries promoting UK talent and cultural relations

• News that it was disbanding these departments emerged at the end of last year

• A response came first with a joint letter of objection published in The Guardian on 12 January from members of the visual arts sector. Signatories included David Hockney, Tracey Emin, Lucian Freud and Sam Taylor-Wood

• The design sector wrote its own letter to The Guardian, published on 19 January, expressing concern at the ‘wholesale replacement of art with the aspirations of the creative industries’. Sir Terence Conran, Professor Ron Arad, Peter Saville and Thomas Heatherwick were among the signatories

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