Halfway through our interview Graham Sheffield,  British Council’s Director of Arts, remembers a speech he has to write. He needs to work on a lecture he will deliver in Brazil on the role of symphony orchestras in international diplomacy.This is Sheffield’s area of expertise – how such cultural programmes can be about much more than [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

More than about the arts

British Council’s Director of Arts, Graham Sheffield who was in Sri Lanka talks to Smriti Daniel

Graham Sheffield in Colombo. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Halfway through our interview Graham Sheffield,  British Council’s Director of Arts, remembers a speech he has to write. He needs to work on a lecture he will deliver in Brazil on the role of symphony orchestras in international diplomacy.This is Sheffield’s area of expertise – how such cultural programmes can be about much more than a display of skill and repertoire: “It’s a very interesting thing, because actually now orchestras are beginning to contribute a remarkable amount in terms of engaging young and new audiences through their music, through digital means, through virtual reality, through technical innovation and also building diaspora engagement. It’s more and more not just about the event but the work you do in the community and with the community you are visiting.”

Sheffield, who stepped into his current post in 2011, is responsible for leading and delivering a global arts strategy and programme across the British Council’s 110 country operations.“I have never gone into keep a ship afloat. I have always been more interested in the radical change, and I enjoy it,” he says with evident relish. A former Artistic Director of the Barbican Centre in London, Sheffield also worked at the BBC, where he was a Radio 3 producer for some 12 years. In a career focused on developing the arts, Sheffield’s most notable posts have included being a founder of the Meltdown Festival and a former Chair of the Royal Philharmonic Society. He is currently the chair of the UK’s largest music charity, Help Musicians. His resume is filled with honours, most recently an ISPA International Citation of Merit for lifetime achievement in the arts.

When he came to work at the British Council, Sheffield says his first priority was to “get the arts back on the agenda.” He has since overseen a period of expansion and increased investment in the arts at the British Council. His priorities have included the launch of a cultural skills programme and a digital arts programme as well as the enlargement of the British Council’s extensive art collection.Though his stint was supposed to last only three years, Sheffield has been invited to simply “carry on” without a fixed time frame. He says he intends to stay for as long as he feels he can make a difference: “This is probably the most challenging role I have had ever in my career, I suppose because of the scale of it and the complexity of the different strands of it – political, social, diplomatic, artistic, financial – untangling all that knitting and finding coherence in it keeps me on my toes.”

He has seen his hopes for their programme flower in the most unexpected of contexts: In Lebanon, Sheffield remembers meeting with women in a refugee camp in Beirut – they were staging the Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Sheffield was fascinated by how the plays seemed to resonate deeply with the actors. “That stays with me constantly,” he says. “Seeing women finding contemporary relevance, seeing their own predicament as women reflected; bereaved women, women without employment or unregarded in society being able to express themselves very powerfully through art and seeing the impact that has had on them as citizens and what they can do in society.”

Aside from work in West Asia, Gulf and North Africa, Sheffield has also planned major extended seasons in Brazil, China, Qatar, India, Mexico and South Africa, and was in Sri Lanka earlier this month to meet with country directors and managers from this region as well as the arts team from the UK. They are working on a strategy for South Asia, and Sheffield says the focus is on understanding what has worked and changing what hasn’t.

The process is rooted in a framework authored by Sheffield that gives teams around the world a sense of direction to interpret it in the local context. “I am certainly not going to impose an arts policy from British Council central on Sri Lanka or anywhere else,” he says, emphasising only that the framework allows for a commonality of approach and a way of standardising evaluations. Sheffield says he is here in part to become acquainted with the island’s cultural programmes and policies but he underlines how making them a priority can drive growth and development. “In other parts of the world, several small countries such as Singapore, and some larger ones as well, see the arts and other creative industries as vital to both economic prosperity and growth but also to social stability and social improvement as well.” Sheffield notes that the creative sector is the fastest growing sector in the UK economy, now approaching some 7 – 8 per cent of the GDP, equal to some £64 billion pounds. “Those are some pretty powerful figures,” he says.

An arts policy needs to be about more than individual programmes but about creating a sense of what art can contribute to society in general, says Sheffield. “Considering this is a country with such a rich cultural past, it will be interesting to see how that can be turned into something that defines Sri Lanka for the future. We’d like to help and it would be interesting to work on.” This leads quite naturally into a conversation on the recruitment of arts to the service of the peace and reconciliation agenda. Again, Sheffield is frank about the UK having its own fair share of problems. He refers to Northern Ireland, where conflict between unionists (who wanted to remain within the United Kingdom) and nationalists (who favoured a united Ireland, independent of British rule) spanned some three decades of violence and claimed thousands of lives.

“Certainly the arts continue to play a pivotal role in increasing understanding between the different communities in Northern Ireland,” he says. “I am not over-claiming for arts, but I am saying it is a part of the solution.” He speaks of creating spaces for dialogue and of how artists are often able to articulate perspectives in their work that there is no room for in more formal or political processes. “However, we have got to see this as a long game.” Particularly for young people in former conflict zones, the arts can provide some alternative pathways for them whether it is for self-expression or skill development. Through such programmes, “the benefit to the UK is indirect but the benefit to the community is direct,” he acknowledges, but then again: “That’s fine by me.”

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