“I thought you might ask that!” Arts Council England’s chief executive is waving a piece of paper at me, sheepish yet triumphant. On it, from what I can see, is a list of at least 20 shows – productions that Darren Henley has seen recently, in case his mind went blank when I asked him.
“Because the trouble is,” he admits, after revealing he had recently watched Anita and Me at Birmingham Rep, “I’ve been to see so much stuff. I’ve worked out since I’ve joined I’ve been to 30 different theatres’ productions, and also visited dozens more around the country in the daytime.”
If it can be classed as a pitfall, it is one of Henley’s own making. When he was interviewed for the top position at England’s arts funding body a year ago, he made the perhaps overzealous promise that, were he to get the job, he would spend half of his working hours outside London, visiting organisations and artists across the country.
“And I’ve kept that promise,” he says with a smile, as we sit on opposite sofas in ACE’s central London office. “So I literally do travel around quite a lot – I am no stranger to an advance fare standard class train ticket. But I really enjoy that, and that’s been a fantastic learning for me, to get out and talk to people.”
It sounds like a mammoth undertaking, but Henley got early practice surviving a punishing travel schedule. While studying politics at the University of Hull – “City of Culture 2017”, he chimes brightly, the plug softened by his unfeigned enthusiasm – Henley also began working for Classic FM in London. For two years he would read the Sunday afternoon news on air, sleep in the chief executive’s office on the sofa – “which he never knew” – and then catch the 5:30 morning train back to Hull in time for Monday lectures. Fast-forward 20 years and Henley had his own office, and sofa, as the station’s managing director – a position he enjoyed for more than a decade. What made him decide to give the running of ACE a shot?
“I thought it was a great challenge,” he says. “It’s a very exciting place. The arts council makes a huge difference to people’s lives – and when a headhunter rang I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll come and have a chat’.”
Now, six months into the role, Henley is facing his first major hurdle. The autumn spending review by the new Conservative government will be announced on November 25, and the word hurdle is, perhaps, optimistic. If the Department for Culture, Media and Sport passes on the savings it has been told to prepare for, ACE could be facing a staggering 40% cut to its grant-in-aid budget: less a hurdle, more a roadblock. But Henley underlines ACE’s intention to continue discussions with the government right up until the review.
“We are making the case, still, as strong as we can, for investment in arts and culture,” he says firmly. “And it’s very, very important to me that we don’t think about this as subsidy, but we think about this as investment. Because investment pays dividends.”
Certainly his choice of words suggests an arts council that has wised up to the way a Conservative government thinks. But of course it must prepare, and is preparing, for the worst.
“We, as with everyone else, are modelling what cuts would look like,” Henley says, “we’ve been asked to do that. If large-scale cuts come to pass then they would be very challenging for the sector. And we are making that case as well. We…” He pauses for a deep breath, before exhaling the next five words as an unmistakeable sigh. “We will do our best. As always, we will do our best to mitigate those cuts wherever we can, but were we to have to lose a very large sum, then that would be a big challenge to everyone.”
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