Arts Council England has announced that Tees Valley and County Durham will be among 54 priority places nationally where it wants to develop new opportunities for investment. Here, its chief executive Darren Henley writes exclusively for the Darlington & Stockton Times about what that means, the benefits of publicly funded arts and culture and the role the organisation is playing in Covid recovery

LAST month, we were delighted to announce that Tees Valley and County Durham will be among 54 priority places across England, and two of 15 in the North, where we want to develop new opportunities for investment.

This exciting news is part of Let’s Create, our strategy for the next ten years. Our vision is that creativity and culture can play a part in levelling up the country.

Each of these priority places is eager to drive positive change through culture. We know that the political leadership across the Tees Valley and County Durham is committed to embedding arts and culture within social and economic planning.

As Mayor Ben Houchen said, in response to Tees Valley being named as one of our priority places: “This comes at a vital time as the country continues its economic recovery following the effects of the coronavirus. Not only will this support help to promote and develop more high-quality experiences to give people things to look forward to after what has been a couple of incredibly difficult years, it will also directly boost the creative industries.”

Meanwhile, County Durham has recognised the transformative power of arts and culture through its bid to become UK City of Culture in 2025. It was great news to hear this month that County Durham is now one of eight places across the UK that has been longlisted for this prestigious title.

Councillor Elizabeth Scott, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for economy and partnerships, which includes responsibility for arts and culture, welcomed the Arts Council’s focus on the county and spoke of the county council’s shared belief that arts and culture are crucial to economic growth, the levelling up agenda, and enhancing the vibrancy of our towns and villages. She confirmed that these are all key factors driving County Durham’s bid to be UK City of Culture 2025.

Our extra commitment to these priority places comes as part of a delivery plan to implement the vision of our Let’s Create strategy which states that by 2030 England will be a country in which the creativity of each individual is valued and given the chance to flourish.

But what difference will our strategy mean to those living in the Tees Valley and County Durham?

By naming a set of priority places we recognise the need for more cultural investment in these locations, which in turn means you will get more opportunities to enjoy high-quality cultural experiences in your neighbourhoods.

We know the positive effect that both participating in and experiencing arts and culture has on individuals and communities – it enriches lives and benefits health and wellbeing. And we will focus on these places over the coming years, working closely with arts and cultural organisations and local partners to increase investment.

As we emerge from the pandemic the creative and cultural sector will play a vital role in our country’s recovery.

The news about our priority places comes after a very difficult period for the arts and cultural sector across the North East and indeed the whole of the UK.

Cities and towns throughout the country had to close their cultural venues last year and we faced a moment that threatened the existence of many organisations who have delighted audiences for so long.

Thankfully, the Government stepped in with an unprecedented investment in the shape of the Culture Recovery Fund. This £2bn injection, which the Arts Council has helped deliver, meant we could save thousands of cultural organisations. The lifeline provided by the fund has helped to keep arts organisations alive and has protected many jobs, including across North Yorkshire, County Durham and the Tees Valley.

This financial support has never been more urgently needed or gratefully received than during the past 12 months.

Recognising the role and cultural significance of many organisations and businesses in Middlesbrough and Stockton, more than £2.5m of Culture Recovery Fund support has been invested here, including grants for Stockton Arts Centre, Middlesbrough Town Hall, Billingham International Folklore Festival of World Dance and Tees Music Alliance.

Billingham International Folklore Festival of World Dance.

Billingham International Folklore Festival of World Dance.

Meanwhile in County Durham, organisations benefitting from Culture Recovery Fund include Durham Music Service, Bishop Auckland Town Hall, TIN Arts and Beamish Museum.

Other recipients have included Darlington Hippodrome, the Festival of Thrift and Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum. And in Hambleton and Richmondshire, Rural Arts North Yorkshire, Swaledale Festival and The Georgian Theatre Royal, among others, have all received much-needed support.

The Arts Council was established 75 years ago, born out of the belief that the arts would lift the nation’s spirits and give hope to people as the country emerged from six dark years of the Second World War.

Looking to the future...

Seventy-five years later, that role for our creative practitioners and cultural organisations is once again of national importance. During the uncertain days of lockdown, arts and creativity were prominent in helping people cope, and now the creative and cultural sector is playing a vital role in our country’s economic and social recovery.

Thankfully the cultural sector is reawakening, and we can look forward to experiencing arts and culture in person again. For example, I’m sure many have already planned a trip to Lumiere Festival when it returns to Durham next month.

The Culture Recovery Fund has been a lifeline for many, but it’s now time to look ahead and we need to continue to invest in places like Tees Valley, County Durham and North Yorkshire to ensure everyone across the UK can access arts and culture.