Meet Darren Henley, Arts Council England

PUBLISHED: 08:52 16 January 2016 | UPDATED: 09:06 16 January 2016

Darren Henley at The Gulbenkian

Darren Henley at The Gulbenkian

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Arts and culture can literally change lives and the Canterbury man at the head of the Arts Council, Darren Henley OBE, is making that his mission as the organisation celebrates its 70th anniversary year.

the The first live classical concert Darren Henley ever saw was at Leeds Castle when he was about seven or eight. It made a lasting impression.

“It was one of those big 1812 Overture performances with fireworks and back then they had real military canons. I was really excited by that, especially when a whole branch of tree fell down right in front of me! It remains my favourite piece today,” laughs the chief executive of Arts Council England.

We are sitting in his glass-walled office in Bloomsbury just off the big open-plan space where his colleagues are drifting in to start their working week. Accents of orange add a cheery note and artwork on the walls includes a giant framed poster announcing: ‘I found the car keys on the marmalade lid in the fridge.’ Works for me.

It’s 8.30am on a grey Monday and the boss has been in for some time, although he won’t tell me just how early a train from Canterbury he catches. I suspect pretty early.

But there’s little distinction between day and night for Darren, who attends art and cultural events most evenings and clearly loves that side of his role. He might be at the theatre, a gallery, a contemporary dance piece or concert in the capital or anywhere in the UK.

Arts Council England is quite a devolved organisation with 70 per cent of its 450 staff deployed around the regions and Manchester being the main office rather than London. I am delighted to find how enthusiastic and knowledgeable Darren is about the arts in Kent. He is full of praise for the excellent work being done by its universities, Canterbury Christchurch, the University of Kent of Kent and the University for the Creative Arts.

“All three do different things – Canterbury Christchurch is very much focused on Kent, the University of Kent is very much a European university with campuses around Europe as well and UCA is the highest-performing arts university in terms of the league tables in the UK, producing the people who are really making a difference in the arts in the future.

“One of the things that is most exciting to me coming into this world is probably in the old days there was a triangle when you had the local authorities, the artists and arts organisations and then the Arts Council – now more and more universities are becoming part of that connection so today it’s more of a square than a triangle.”

One of Darren’s most recent official Kent visits was to The Gulbenkian, where he met with students from the new youth movement ART31 and entered into a lively debate with the 13-25 year olds. “They were a really impressive group who were very challenging in the best possible way – lots of questions, lots of debate and really seeing the arts as part of their lives.

“It’s really important that all schools across Kent embrace this awareness, that arts subjects are not an optional add-on extra, they are important for employability and part of the fastest-growing industry in the UK.”

A real champion of the role of arts and culture in education, Darren adds: “It’s very important for me to meet with children and young people and hear what they have to say. We need to build the audiences of tomorrow and the arts practitioners and technicians of the future – it’s exciting unleashing those future creatives.”

Darren, who is 43 this month, was born in Tunbridge Wells and lived in Herne Bay and Dover before settling in Canterbury, a city he loves. As well as that memorable classical concert at Leeds Castle, he has fond memories of going to the original Marlowe Theatre as a child and seeing his first pantomime there.

He still loves pantos and goes to the Marlowe one every year, pointing out: “For many young people that is their first experience of live theatre, somewhere with tippy-uppy seats, where you are actively encouraged to join in with what is happening on stage. There are signed and relaxed performances these days, so pantomimes are a great way of bringing new audiences in.”

Educated at St Edmunds in Canterbury, the school was “very enlightened and let me go off and do work experience at Invicta FM (now Heart Kent) when I was 16. I I never really left,” he laughs.

Darren continued to work as a freelance radio journalist for stations including Invicta FM, LBC, and Classic FM (UK) while studying politics at the University of Hull. I’d (wrongly) assumed he’d studied Music, but Darren tells me cheerfully: “I’m not a musician at all – more Grade 1 piano – and I’m not from a musical family either, but I do love music and I’m as happy listening to rock and pop as I am to classical music.”

Which is just as well, because after graduating in 1994, he joined Classic FM full time, working as an overnight newsreader before becoming programme editor of the station’s Classic Newsnight programme in 1995.

He was made news manager in 1996, programme manager in 1999, managing editor in 1999, station manager in 2004 and managing director in 2006 – an impressive 23 years in total – and music was all around him.

“It was great being able to surround myself with great music and artists while I was at Classic FM – and great music was playing everywhere in the building, even in the toilets. It was brilliant.”

He may not have been a musical child prodigy, but he certainly caught up fast. As well as leading Global’s Classic FM since 1999, Darren received an OBE in 2013 for services to music, chaired the Music Manifesto, a government-backed national campaign to improve music education from 2007 to 2010 and has also written many books about music and the arts, including The Virtuous Circle: Why Creativity and Cultural Education Count, co-written with Sir John Sorrell and Paul Roberts.

His 30th was written this Christmas, entitled The Arts Dividend: why investing in art pays, based on what he has learnt in his first year in the role at the Arts Council

But the time was right for change. “I was rung up about this job – I was spending more and more of my time working with arts and cultural organisations and I’d produced two independent reviews for the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - and the Arts Council had picked up quite a lot that came out of my reports.”

He’s being modest again: in fact the reports resulted in a range of new initiatives including England’s first National Plan for Music Education, a new network of Music Education Hubs, the Museums and Schools programme and the creation of the National Youth Dance Company.

After a very amicable parting from Classic FM, which included being able to hand over to his deputy Sam Jackson (“so it’s in excellent hands and he’ll take it on to new and greater heights; he’s a very talented guy) and a ‘lovely send off party’ (held on the roof of Capital Radio), Darren started in his new Arts Council role in December 2014 – after a nine-stage interview process that ended up with him having a conversation with the Secretary of State about his plans.

“There’s a great team here, I have a great deputy and chief executive but there is also a really strong executive board as well,” he tells me.

“My first year was largely spent securing the investment in arts and culture from the government in the recent (November 2015) spending round when the Chancellor gave us a really good settlement, which was not only a brilliant endorsement of the Arts Council as an organisation but also in what artists and cultural organisations do all around the country.

“In his budget and spending review speech he actually stood up and talked about the power of arts and culture in changing lives – which was a brilliant thing to hear from the Chancellor.”

Darren’s ‘next big thing’ is working on an arts dividend, an investment in excellent art and excellent cultural activities for people from all different walks of life and backgrounds.

An example in Kent is the Art Council programme ‘Creative People and Places’ held in Medway and Swale, of which he says: “That’s all about taking art and culture to people who are less likely to demand it. It’s not something just there for an elite, we believe that arts and culture should be in absolutely everybody’s lives and the onus is on us to make sure we engage with people on their terms.”

He adds that Kent has a great history of migration and that we need to reflect that culture and also talk to people from different economic and disability backgrounds too, in order that art and culture should be absolutely reflective of what Great Britain looks like now in the 21st century.

“Arts and culture are fun, but they are also life enhancing in so many other areas. There are economic dividends but also dividends around health and wellbeing, it makes people feel better, and it can have genuine outcomes that mean people’s lives are healthier as a result.”

I ask for an example and Darren gives me an excellent one: “One of the challenges of the NHS is that a lot of elderly people fall over and break bones, which is a challenge on their budgets. We’ve now seen some work done on dance for elderly people, as more lower-body movement makes them stronger and they either don’t fall over as often or recover more quickly if they do. It’s a cost-effective investment by the NHS but also life enhancing for the individuals.”

Darren is also keen on working with local authorities to ensure they are putting art and cultural activities at the heart of what they do. He cites some of the many shining examples in Kent.

“In Ashford I had a meeting with the local MP Damian Green and Ashford Borough Council and as they build this fast-growing part of Kent they see having cultural activities at the heart of that growth as being very important.

“In Canterbury the Festival is not only very big and extremely well established but also under Festival director Rosie Turner it has grown into doing so many new things like the touring Spiegeltent. In Margate I am really excited about the work being done there, the Turner has been an absolutely creative hub and Victoria Pomery is a visionary artistic leader, but at the same time we have a group of young artists living and working in the area who are engaging in and animating the whole town.

“There are big plans in Tunbridge Wells for establishing a cultural hub and places like Maidstone, Rochester and Folkestone have some really exciting work going on.

“And you literally trip over art and artists during the Folkestone Triennial – it shows how art and culture can be challenging, exciting, but also civilising and get conversations started.”

The Arts Council is 70 in 2016 so it it’s going to be a year of celebration, but Darren is also mindful that as an organisation they need to be thinking about future technology, excellence and engaging with everybody.

“We want to have a great workforce of people, so we are training the very best people and we want our arts organisations to be resilient and to be ahead of the curve in new technology, while also building the audiences and practitioners of the future.

“Under me it will be an Arts Council that is absolutely building on our heritage, we exist to invest public money but we also want to make sure that we are creative and creating new ways of engaging with artists and audiences.

So what is art, I ask? “For me art is not for someone else. Art is for all of us,” Darren says immediately.

“At the Arts Council we want to find ways to connect with people, on their terms. Talent is everywhere, so as an organisation we need to find those talented young people, take them on a journey and enable them to learn the right skills, experience the best of arts – and it all starts at school age – meet artists, directors, writers, dancers and musicians. Help create that moment when the spark is lit!

“Then we need to make sure they can learn the right skills to live their dream. When they gain an ability to know about where the history of the art form they are interested in came from, then they get a language to be able to critically write and talk about it.”

It’s an ambitious plan and in Darren’s favourite word, an exciting one, but the arts in England is in safe, dynamic hands. Happy 70th anniversary Arts Council England!

Find out more

Arts Council England (London office)

21 Bloomsbury Street

London WC1B 3HF

South East office

Unit A, Level 4, New England House

New England Street, Brighton BN1 4GH

My favourite Kent

Places to visit

Canterbury Cathedral, I never tire of it. And love zoos – Howletts is my favourite and I like the ocelots best, I decided when I was a kid they were my favourite animal. Chatham Historic Dockyard is really exciting, and I love the countryside of the Weald. Tenterden is lovely and I love Chapel Down, I went on a tour there after being given a vine for Christmas so I got my own wine and learnt something of the real science behind making wine.

Interests and hobbies

I’m a Gillingham season ticket holder so you’ll find me at Priestfield stadium most weekends watching The Gills.


Along Whitstable seafront


The view looking back in Folkestone from the edge of the harbour wall to the town is fantastic

Eating out

Reads of Faversham is my favourite, and Canterbury does very well for its restaurants. I like Deesons and the restaurant at The Abode, and Canterbury Farmers’ Market is great.


Everywhere from the outlet centre at Ashford to Kent’s many quirky independents


It does change over time but if you did force me I’d say the 1812 Overture at the moment. In Kent the Colyer-Fergusson Hall is a great asset, as is the Gulbenkian. I appeared on stage there as a child in a play about Thomas Arden of Faversham, every year my sister and I went to the playscheme at the University of Kent and it led up to a final performance.

Creative outlet: my writing, this Christmas I will write my 30th book, ‘The Arts Dividend: why investing in art pays’, based on what I have learnt in my first year in the role at the Arts Council

In London: in terms of theatres I love the National for its breadth of what you can see, what I love about the galleries in the UK is that in very unexpected places you come across really great works of art

I believe in media where you live


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