How can councillors help to position the arts, culture and heritage within their council’s priorities? Councillor Bob Price of Oxford City Council shares his thoughts. This opinion piece forms part of the inspiring councillor leadership section of our online Culture Hub.
1) How long have you been involved with the arts and culture portfolio, and in what capacity?
My association with arts and culture in Oxford goes back over 30 years. Between 1996 and 1999, I held the Arts, Culture and Recreation portfolio, during which time we launched the council’s first cultural strategy. I am currently Leader of the Council and play a leading role for the Executive on arts and culture policies.
When I was first elected in the early 1980s, arts and culture was peripheral to the work of councils. However, as the notion of councils’ ‘placemaking’ role has become widely accepted, so cultural life has become more central to our policy priorities. Oxford has a strong sense of its own identity and cultural vibrancy. I would say that arts and culture are now seen as a fundamental part of the creation of communities and of civic identity.
2) What are the main challenges that your council is currently facing?
Our central challenge is how best to engage residents from some minority communities and from less advantaged parts of the city. We work a lot in schools and with youth groups to engage the next generation, encouraging them to see how they can really benefit from arts and cultural activity throughout their lives. All the council’s policies are geared towards bridging the gap between the less advantaged and more advantaged communities, and we have targeted programmes with our partners in the arts and cultural partnership to open up opportunities for participation and involvement – especially for young people. We are seeking all the time to extend the range of opportunities offered, through new partnerships and joint working.
3) How does your council plan to ensure that it continues to deliver an effective culture service in the next few years?
Oxford City Council is planning to substantially develop its income generating activities and to be free of government grant funding by 2019. We will never be in a position to fund the core expenditure of the many excellent arts organisations in the city, but through our very successful partnership group, we work with them in applications for grants and provide general support and guidance. Arts Council England wants to see local authority involvement in their funded bodies because they rightly see that local commitment and involvement is the key to securing a widening participation in cultural activities.
4) Why is it important for councils to continue to invest in arts and culture services?
It is very important that councils have a culture strategy that links directly with their wider vision and mission. Culture should be seen as helping to achieve the fundamental objectives which a council is setting for itself and its communities. Within that, partnerships are key – with the private sector, arts and culture providers, private benefactors and funding bodies.
5) What do you see as the future for council-funded arts and culture services?
The opportunities for arts and culture to contribute to building strong local communities are growing. Our major challenge is to keep that potential at the forefront of our minds when developing our policies, despite the budget challenges. We need to keep searching for new ways of partnership working – such as through the Local Enterprise Partnership. We have developed a wider cultural strategy for Oxfordshire which is being implemented gradually through a LEP steering group. We hope that will further strengthen links between the arts, culture and the tourist economy across the whole county.
We have been fortunate in having a strong local economy in recent years, but we want to make sure that the whole community benefits from arts and culture. This includes finding new ways to use unusual spaces for public performance such as our new shopping centre, the central university buildings and community centres – opening up arts and culture to the local community in new ways.
This opinion piece has been developed in conjunction with Arts Council England.