Alan Davey: The arts are here to provide the strength to overcome despair

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The Independent Online

In the times we are living in, the arts matter more than ever. There'll be pressure to cut funding but I'd argue that now is the time to expand. We've got to keep public spending strong as a base to attract private funding, and from which to put on compelling work.

The way to maintain the confidence of audiences and private sector funders is to be bold and ambitious, and not retreat into 'safe'. We know from previous hard times that if standards of aspiration and ambition fall, audiences don't engage and organisations fall into a spiral of decline.

My message to politicians is: keep up the spending on the arts, and do so with confidence and a purpose. Be imaginative, engage with us. We are part of the fabric of civil society, and if you neglect us then you short-change the citizens of the nation. Have courage, and trust us. Understand why Keynes and others who have been involved in reconstructing societies in times of hardship have seen the importance of the arts.

The Arts Council serves artists, and allows them to make great work, and we serve audiences, enabling them to experience great art. We need to back innovation, risk and excellence. It's no good if we talk the language of risk and walk away the first time a risk doesn't come off or times get hard. And artists must mean it too. That's the deal.

Real art enrages and challenges us more often that it soothes. So a world-class Arts Council should be in the same position, but with inner confidence, and a firmness that 'good enough' is not enough. Keynes' words about the new Arts Council offering courage, confidence and opportunity to artists and audiences still ring true. As we enter troubled times, this is true now more than ever.

As JFK said of Robert Frost: '... because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair'. That describes the role of the arts in the times we are in. Our mission as an Arts Council is 'Great art for everyone'. The banner under which all of us engaged in the arts should move forward together should be: take courage.

From a lecture given by the chief executive of Art Council England at the Royal Society of Arts in London