Ignored at home, the British Council is our most important cultural institution abroadby Annabel Freyberg / April 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Year in, year out, all over the world, but particularly in countries where the British government has foreign policy objectives, cultural events are devised, laid on and paid for by a body which is funded directly by the foreign office. Hundreds of thousands of Antony Gormley clay figurines are now touring China; Siberia recently enjoyed a showcase of new British cinema; in January, Aziz Ibrahim, once of the Stone Roses, played a series of gigs in Libya. It’s hard to tell whether such events arrive like damp squibs or welcome blasts of British culture: you won’t read much about them in the press, since arts critics rarely venture much beyond these shores. And anyway, the target audience is not you, citizens of Britain, but populations far removed.
The body behind these far-flung activities is the British Council, which promotes the English language, education, science, law, human rights and the arts, mainly through its 220 offices in 110 countries. The council’s grant from the government for 2003-04 was ?164m (rising to a ?479m turnover, thanks to the services it sells such as English language courses), of which its arts provision was just ?19.2m.
Nevertheless, it is through its arts programme that the British Council achieves greatest visibility. Every year, up to 2,000 events are presented in over 100 countries. Its French and German equivalents – the Institut Fran?ais and the Goethe-Institut – receive far higher arts budgets but attract less worldwide attention. The British Council is arguably our most important, if least accountable, cultural agency. Its priorities are quite distinct from, say, the Arts Council or the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta, set up in 1998). The British Council is a major commissioning body, devising its own ideas for projects rather than simply facilitating them, and promoting British artists to foreign audiences. By contrast, Arts Council England is a baggily inclusive outfit (funded to the tune of ?335m in 2003-04, rising to ?410m in 2004-05) which acts as a domestic support structure, operating through regional offices and providing funds for everything from established institutions such as the Royal Opera House (?3.1m this year) to individuals receiving just a few hundred pounds. In contrast to the Arts Council’s generalism, Nesta focuses specifically on innovative ideas.
Over the past decade, the British Council has successfully dispelled the image of a fusty imperial network by promoting the latest in…