The battle for design at the British Council isn’t over yet

Lynda Relph-Knight

Though the tribulations of the Arts Council have attracted infinitely more media attention, there are similarities between recent wranglings there and the current situation at the British Council with regard to its arts strategy (see News, page 3). Both organisations appear to have stepped down a little in light of adverse public response to their revised policies.

In the case of the Arts Council, more small performance groups and venues, such as the Bush Theatre in west London, have received life-saving grant aid than was previously anticipated following intervention by celebrities.

At the other end of the creative industries spectrum, the British Council – whose main mission is to promote the English language British and culture abroad – has suspended a plan for structural changes that would merge departments including design, visual arts and architecture into one unit, The Arts Innovation Team. It is now pledged to wait until the end of a two-month consultation period before making changes that could spell redundancy for staunch design champions within the council.

Of the two organisations, the British Council is by far the greatest patron of design. It has won awards for exemplary exhibitions by the likes of Ben Kelly Design and Casson Mann and for classroom graphics and posters by Johnson Banks, among others. Its embassies abroad have, meanwhile, provided valuable, often innovative work for a number of architects, giving out a strong message about creativity in the UK.

Concerns have been raised that if provisions for commissioning design and architecture are amalgamated with more prominent visual arts and performance disciplines, their importance will be lost. They do, after all, often provide the backdrop against which other forms of British creativity can shine.

As an industry we should engage in the council’s consultation and suggest ways to help it move forward with design and architecture central to its remit. They are too important to be set aside.

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