Four Seasons - But Not By Vivaldi...

Four Seasons - But Not By Vivaldi...

There's a well-worn phrase about London buses: none come for ages, and then several come along at once! I wouldn't say our British Council seasons run to that timetable, but it is true that, in 2017, we are spoilt for choice. This year, to be precise, there are four: in Korea, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and in India.

For those unfamiliar with our work, these year-long or multi-year "seasons" are, essentially, extended showcases of UK Arts work overseas - one of the means by which the British Council uses arts and culture to help people in different countries understand the UK better.

As you might expect, the curation and production of these seasons amounts to a lot of work and, normally, we wouldn't have planned to undertake four in the course of one year. But sometimes, external events and circumstances dictate otherwise. Several years of growth in our work is now bearing fruit in some countries - Korea and the Gulf - just as we hit significant milestones in the history of others, as is the case with India, which celebrates its 70th year of independence. Indonesia has also been difficult - to find the right team, the right partners, and the right focus for that very particular market.

There's a tendency to think of all of these as a series of brilliant fireworks: an initial launch with a fanfare - maybe a UK government minister or two - followed by some high profile, blue chip "showcase" events.

It's true that we do consult with UK stakeholders to identify those countries which are of high importance to us all, and that we work in partnership with cultural authorities, organisations and ministries in these designated countries; we also work hard to make sure that our programmes have reciprocity at their heart and remain focused on building sustainable cultural and social partnerships for the long term, opening up opportunities for those countries to exchange artists and ideas with us in the UK.

Through this, we are able to establish good relationships with both local and national authorities in the countries in which we work. We have long known that traditional methods of diplomacy are not the only route to successful international relations and, by working with local partners, we are able to build strong foundations for future collaboration.

As the same time we have increased our capacity to work with cultural authorities and institutions in the UK. The UK/India season, for example, includes important activity which will be delivered in both India and the UK by Arts Council England, Creative Scotland, and Arts Council Wales. By working in close partnership with cultural and educational institutions, national agencies, government departments and the private sector; we are able to deliver much more impact for the UK sector as a whole.

While there is some commonality in our approach to Seasons, there's a high element of distinctiveness and specificity about each one. We are keen to make sure that no "one size fits all": that the programme for each country remains tailored to the market and context in which it is happening.

In India, for example, we are focussing on digital participation, with a project by Aardman Animations, "Saptan Stories", which is a cross-India game of digital consequences, projected to reach many thousands of young people online across the country. As part of the UK/Korea programme, we're looking specifically at City-to-City networks: connecting cities from Korea and the UK and exploring the role of arts and culture in reshaping cities and connecting communities by creating art. In Indonesia, we have looked at strengths in the current market - in fashion, for example, and music - and are developing our own programme accordingly.

In all of this we still seek to develop an appreciation for and awareness of the UK's arts scene abroad. In particular, our strengths in the fields of diversity and inclusion: by creating opportunities to show off representatives from the UK's world-class disability arts sector, such as Candoco Dance Company; and working with policy makers to see it recognised as part of the cultural agenda.

We've also begun to ensure that we constructively host projects initiated by other cultural organisations that aren't part of "our" core programme - the British Museum's epic "India and the World: Nine Stories" exhibition, which will tour to cities across India later this year, is a good example of this.

For the past five years we have carried out work in the Gulf region - notably in Qatar and Bahrain - and forged relationships and strong foundations for future work in the swiftly developing Emirati cultural sector. Working to build this sort of cultural infrastructure creates even more opportunities for UK companies as they seek to show their work overseas, as evidenced by the recent BBC Proms, held in Dubai; and performances of La Boheme by Welsh National Opera at the brand new Dubai Opera as part of the UK/UAE season.

What I hope is a clear thread running through all of our multiple Seasons is the fact that promoting the UK abroad - the British Council's traditional bread and butter - has moved on from simple showcase - that stereotype of parachuting a theatre company into town for a single performance. It is now about extending partnerships and providing a platform for all comers to build new ways in which international artistic collaboration can happen, as well as a sustainable legacy of contact and exchange.

These are exciting times; and, while we continue to develop robust methodologies to chart the long-lasting impact of these initiatives, our own evaluation - driven by successful recent ventures in South Africa, Nigeria and Mexico - shows that we already know that they really do create opportunities for the UK sector, that they build our credibility as a creative, outward-looking nation, both at home and overseas; and that they do lay the foundations for a broader, more balanced and sturdy relationship with the UK.


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