More than men with bells

Mark Glazebrook on how the British Council's cultural activities still give good value for money

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Those of us who worked at the Arts Council of Great Britain, some 40 years ago, were as often as not introduced, even by our own families, as being at or from 'the British Arts Council'. In vain did we explain that lumping these two institutions together was utterly inaccurate, that the Arts Council brought art from overseas to Britain while looking after art appreciation and practice in Britain, whereas the British Council promoted British culture abroad. The avoidance of personal publicity was a part of our ethos, but a nadir in our public relations was reached when my friend, colleague and fellow struggler at the Arts Council's headquarters at 4 St James's Square was introduced as 'Mr Colin Anson – from the British Legion'.

Another Arts Council colleague was Joanna Drew, who has just died aged 73. One of the first of many achievements of this unpompous, kind and splendid woman – her mother was a painter, her father a brigadier – was to organise the Arts Council's great Picasso exhibition at the Tate in 1960, under the leadership of Picasso's friend, the Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. As her glowing obituaries showed, Joanna Drew knew how to rise above the bureaucracy which comes with arts administration.

'Don't they send morris dancers to bongo-bongoland or something?' There is a history behind this old chestnut which crops up even today, despite the fairly steady rise of the British Council's reputation. In her book published in 1984, The British Council: The First Fifty Years, Frances Donaldson blamed Lord Beaverbrook and the Daily Express for the discrepancy between the normally excellent image of the British Council abroad and the non-existent or periodically trivialised image at home. What Frances Donaldson inexplicably failed to mention was that Beaverbrook had wanted to be the British Council's chairman – it would have suited the old rogue's purposes very well – but quite rightly the board would not have him. She did mention, however, that one director-general of the British Council, Sir Paul Sinker (1954-68), who collected pictures and furniture, deliberately cultivated a somewhat brusque and philistine manner as a device to counteract the 'bunch of effete, long-haired crackpots, pansies and third-rate poets' image vindictively peddled by the Beaverbrook press. As regards those morris dancers, the problem was that the British Council's client countries specifically asked for them. 'We want those men with bells,' they cried.

Of course, morris dancers never occupied more than a tiny fraction of the Council's work. Indeed it is only one part of the British Council's function to export Shakespeare, productions by the Royal Opera House and the work of our best musicians, architects, artists, actors, writers, dancers, singers and craftsmen across the whole spectrum of the arts and crafts. It supports some 2,500 cultural events a year. To give the gist, apart from organising the highly respected British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the Council's 2003 Art for a Dangerous World programme includes sending Antony Gormley's 'Asian Field' and Vivienne Westwood's current spring/summer collections to China; a show of still life to Venezuela, mainly from its own collection of British art; Damien Hirst's early work to Slovenia; some state-of-the-art British kitchen design to Muscat; and two UK hip-hop bands to Botswana.

A few items in this wide-ranging programme may sound a bit trendy but there's not much point sending out stuff that nobody has heard of or wants. It's part of the Council's job to win the hearts and minds of young people overseas. In this context Britart, love it or hate it, is a plus. So is the British Council's website. So is innovative British science. In 2001-02 the scientific exhibition Innovation UK was toured to 50 countries and seen by half a million visitors. As well as promoting our artists, the British Council promotes British science in a number of ways, including the sending of scientists abroad. Given a poor school record at physics, I was once flattered to be mistaken for 'one of the lads from Harwell' on the night train from Moscow to St Petersburg.

Last year the British Council earned £182 million from its clients and customers worldwide, much of it from teaching English. In many circles, this part of its work is better known than the promotion of British art and science. There are 120 teaching and training centres in 53 countries and the Council administers some 840,000 UK examinations per annum. The cover of the Council's most recent annual report shows a smiling young woman, a Chevening scholar from the Bahamas. The British Council has played an honourable role in helping the tongue of Tyndale and Shakespeare to supplant all notions of French as a diplomatic language or of Esperanto as a world language.

The British Council began in 1934. France, Germany and Italy were earlier than Britain in the field of cultural diplomacy. The United States Information Agency once ran a useful art gallery in the Grosvenor Square embassy but the US has now visibly slipped back in the cultural field. Raw power seems to be the name of America's game right now. If the US had boasted a civilised, independent cultural organisation such as the British Council, it would almost certainly have avoided the appalling recent blunder of failing to safeguard the Baghdad museum's treasures, despite having been implored to do so by its director, Donny George, who understandably calls the looting 'the crime of the century'. After a war, the British Council may be in a better position to open up channels of communication than the Foreign Office. Our best ambassadors respect and help British Council officials, who are often dedicated individuals.

The justification for the funds the British Council receives from the government is political. In the words of the above-mentioned annual report, the Council aims to 'enhance awareness of the UK's democratic values and processes, and work in partnership with other countries to strengthen good governance and human rights'. Time and again, writers of reports on the British Council and both Labour and Conservative prime ministers, including Mrs Thatcher, have been persuaded that this institution gives good value for money. The strength of the British Council is that it is free, like the BBC World Service, from direct, day-to-day government control. It has proved itself capable of taking hard and unpopular decisions, such as the decision to close down libraries in certain European countries. We are supposed to be already in a union with some of these countries and, in the age of information technology, it cannot be the job of the British Council to provide an expensive service for a few civilised expatriates.

An erstwhile high-ranking official of the Royal Academy stated not long ago that 'art is the new diplomacy'. But art and diplomacy go back a long way together – to the Trojan horse perhaps, if Clausewitz was right about war being an extension of diplomacy. Rubens is the best example of a successful painter-diplomat. The final arrangement he effected between the Crowns of England and Spain was facilitated by the fact that his opposite number in negotiation, Sir Balthasar Gerbier, was likewise a painter. Peter Paul Rubens was knighted for his services – as are today's directors-general of the British Council.