British Council Shifts Focus to Engage Islam, Global Warming

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

London ( - As a British charity prepares to reach out to the Islamic world and tackle global warming, artists here are voicing concern that the renowned organization's legacy is at risk.

Founded by the British government in the early 1930s, the British Council describes its purpose as building mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries and promoting the best of British arts and science abroad.

From exhibitions of contemporary art to sponsoring scientific exchanges, the council holds hundreds of cultural events in 109 countries each year, as well as running English language schools on six continents.

But a radical restructuring was announced earlier this year, and many British artists have become concerned that the council is losing its focus and becoming more politicized.

Last month, director general Martin Davidson announced that the council would cut back operations in Europe to focus more on the Islamic world.

Council offices have been shut or will be shut in ten out of 19 European countries, with arts events being pared back dramatically and most of the English language libraries - long beloved by expatriates everywhere - closing as well.

Although the council will continue to give grants for British exhibitions at the prestigious Venice Biennale, other touring artists and groups will now get only logistical support.

With the council cutting back on its presence in Europe by a projected 30 percent, Davidson said it would focus more on Islamic states, with projects that promote cross-cultural understanding and fight extremism among Muslim youth.

In Pakistan, a program called "Reconnect" will work with religious schools on joint projects designed to move young people away from extremism.

In March, the council sponsored a showcase of hip-hop at the National Theater in Libya and corporate plans refer to a need to reach the emerging generation of "leaders" in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Davidson reportedly said that it was necessary to "bridge the gap" between Islam and the West, which is part of the British government's new efforts to connect with the public in mainly Muslim countries.

In addition, the council this year also began to promote the view that the world is in grave danger from global warming. It co-sponsored a conference of scientists held in Switzerland last month and a recent exhibition in Dubai with pictures from renowned photographers showing the effects of climate change.

Richard Shone, editor of the Burlington Magazine - an influential arts monthly - said this week that many of the artists he's spoken to have been horrified by the changes in the council's visual arts department.

In the past, through traveling exhibitions and grants to artists, the council has nurtured the early careers of many influential British artists, as well funding the visits of foreign artists to Britain, he noted.

Now, as the budget for the council's visual art department is cut, the changes have begun to undermine its customary independence and threaten its very reason for being, he said.

Shone said Wednesday that in the future, artists seeking grants from the British Council may have to fit into the current political agenda.

"I would think the more successful artist might be the more political oriented than someone who works away in the studio creating beautiful objects," he said.

Davidson, in a statement sent to Cybercast News Service on Thursday, described the reaction to the changes at the council to a "small dust storm" and said the institution remained committed to sending art abroad to advance liberal and democratic values.

He compared the need to focus with greater intensity on the Islamic and Arabic world to the British Council's work in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.

"The government does set strategic priorities," Davidson said. "And who could argue that a closer engagement with the Islamic world and global warming are not key concerns in today's world?

"But it is not the case that the government sets artistic priorities," he stressed.

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