Director's blog: A new ACE strategy – and a new era for culture, health and wellbeing?

As many of you will have seen, Arts Council England has published its new strategy: Let's Create. Like the National Lottery Heritage Fund's strategic funding framework (published last year) it is full of references to health and wellbeing. This has not come from nowhere. The Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance would like to acknowledge the hard work of all our members and partners, and everyone else who took part in the ACE consultation process, whether they went to meetings or responded online, and made the case for considering health and wellbeing, as well as supporting the broader shift towards inclusive, participatory creative and cultural practice. All this has led to what Nicholas Serota refers to in his introduction as "the dissolving of barriers between artists and the audiences with whom they interact".

Darren Henley tells us in his outro that

This Strategy was not conceived behind closed doors. We worked together with the sector we represent, and the communities we serve, to create it. (p.62)

The strategy acknowledges the contributions made in its consultation process including drawing attention to “exiting and inspiring” work relating to health and wellbeing, environmental sustainability, new tech, and education (p.10). The influence of both Creative Health (2017) and ACE’s own evidence review (2018) is clear in the Strategy; both publications that many of our members played key roles in creating. Many of Arts Council England’s own staff have also campaigned internally for this new acknowledgement of the impacts of our work on health and wellbeing.

The timing of this new strategy, hot on the heels of the launch of the National Academy for Social Prescribing (supported in part by ACE) means that some organisations within ACE’s national portfolio may be starting to consider their impacts on health and wellbeing for the first time. This is a welcome development – and one that makes this Alliance, with its dispersed structure, its many Strategic Alliance Members and regional champions and networks, a valuable hub for information and expertise. All are members are part of the project of spreading good practice and critical thinking about this work… our collective knowledge and experience will be increasingly important in the coming few months and years.

Some more detail on the strategy

ACE organises its strategy by three connected outcomes: Creative People, Cultural Communities, and A Creative & Cultural Country; and by four investment principles: Ambition & Quality, Inclusivity & Relevance, Dynamism, and Environmental Responsibility.

Here are a few key sections you might find useful:

Under Creative People:

Getting involved in creative activities in communities reduces loneliness, supports physical and mental health and wellbeing, sustains older people and helps to build and strengthen social ties. (p.33)

Under Cultural Communities:

There is growing evidence that creative and cultural activity can lead to improved health and wellbeing. We want to develop deeper partnerships with the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England, social care providers and others to support further research in this area, learn from what is proven to work internationally, and explore the potential of promising new approaches such as social prescribing. (p.38)

It’s useful too to know that ACE is considering how to articulate the value of socially engaged practice with new seriousness:

we will work to improve the way we make the case for the social and economic value of investing public money in culture (p.19)

We will support local cultural organisations, including libraries, museums, Music Education Hubs and arts organisations, to develop a better understanding of the needs and interests of their communities, and to use that intelligence for the measurable benefit of those communities. (p.37-38)

There is also strong acknowledgement of libraries’ work to support social prescribing (p.22 – see also our two recent Day in the Life articles from Sally Middleton and Alison Rainton).

And some useful words under Ambition & Quality (p.47):

We do not believe that certain types or scales of creative activity are inherently better or of greater value than others: excellence can be found in village halls and concert halls, and in both the process of participation and the work that is produced.

…and under Inclusive & Relevant (p.53):

In future, we will judge organisations for the way in which they reflect and build a relationship with their communities, as well as for the quality and ambition of their work.


Pros and Cons?

As is only right for a publicly-funded institution, ACE received some criticism for the strategy even in its draft stage. Here are a few more detailed thoughts on some pros and cons.

What's included in 'culture'?

On definitions (p.12), it is a relief to see ACE continue to acknowledge how exclusionary the concept of ‘the arts’ can be, without ditching the term (‘art’ and ‘artists’ appear many times in its strategy). But while one can see why ACE is implicitly trying to keep ‘food, religion and other forms of heritage’ out of the word ‘culture’ – presumably to keep focus on what it conceives of as core business – I wonder how long this definition will serve. One of the best, most creative evenings last winter, for me, was Thackray Nightshift in Leeds – all about cooking, dance, and religion in a museum. It’s good to read then that “we will become more flexible about the range and type of cultural activities that we support”.

Across the life course?

There is no question that ACE’s emphasis on children and young people is to be welcomed at a time when creativity and culture continue to be devastatingly squeezed out of schools, but it’s simultaneously frustrating to see that the ambitious, dynamic and increasingly radical creative ageing sector is less visible in this strategy than it might be. A more holistic idea of the life course might serve more effectively to challenge ideas about when in our lives we can make art and culture, when we can learn, and when we are valued.

Health demand and health cost

We questioned in our collective response to ACE's draft strategy in the summer the acceptance of a position that health costs are inevitably rising.[1] It is vital we remember that health costs are not the same as demand. Public health spend fell in real terms between 2010 and 2019. Costs are related to the market, not to need. One of Matt Hancock’s explicit reasons for championing social prescribing is clearly the challenge it presents to over-prescription, to high-cost pharmaceutical intervention (see his Facebook video here). Health cost has as much if not more to do with industry pricing as ageing populations. To ignore this is to imply that the more vulnerable members of our population are in some way to be blamed for rising costs. It is, incidentally, this kind of narrative that arts activism around ageing – sometimes funded by ACE – seeks to challenge.

Tech & business

The strategy retains a lack of nuance about technology in favour of an anxiety to jump into both with both feet. ACE's work provides some opportunity to consider the social and psychological implications of increasing reliance on tech, for example. And in its ‘Dynamism’ investment principle it seems to shift gear from a largely community-oriented democratising language towards something more business-like (p.49), favouring words like “entrepreneurial”, “business models”, “maximise income”, “mergers” etc. We would argue that Dynamism in an age of social crisis may be less about business and more about imagination and wellbeing.


In relation to this, our own response to the draft strategic framework in June suggested that ACE could be far more ambitious in the terms by which it seeks to address the climate crisis. It’s excellent to see that environmental responsibility is one of the four investment principles, and ACE makes it clear that it will apply these principles to itself as well; but (at this stage at least) what this means is less clear. When it comes to promoting “global partnerships”, for example, (pp.23 and 42) there is thus far no commitment to considering how this might happen at a time when (for example) air travel is increasingly problematic. More broadly, we suggested in our summer response that real change come from understanding the climate crisis in the context of global inequalities, and recognising that fostering the kind of wellbeing economics already advocated and practised by many of ACE’s actual and potential grantees may be just as important as addressing the carbon footprint of the portfolio. Moreover… imagination and creativity is not just for the kind of awareness-raising the Strategy currently celebrates (vital though this is), it’s also about inventing new and sustainable ways of being.

Cultural democracy?

More broadly, it seems that ACE is locked into the intersection between ‘democratising culture’ (which could broadly be defined as opening up access) and ‘cultural democracy’. You can see this when the Strategy says “we want everyone to have more opportunities … to be creative, and to experience high-quality culture” (p.15). Cultural democracy would have little truck with the idea that one experiences high-quality culture as if it were a gift. The Campaign for Cultural Democracy stated in 1984 that “We believe that people have the right to create their own culture. this means taking part in the telling of the story, not having a story told to them.”[2]

The strategy tells us that to make its “Creative People” and “Cultural Communities” a reality, we need “a professional cultural sector that … should aspire to be world-leading – in the way it makes art, in the imagination and expertise with which it makes exciting use of collections and develops libraries, and in the culture it creates and shares” (p.41). There is no question that creative and cultural professionals need to be supported in their skills, valued in their expertise and paid properly. As the strategy acknowledges, we cannot become representative without this. And not all art has to be participatory. But culture is not a thing created solely by the professional cultural sector, and there is still arguably a journey to travel from “creates and shares” to “co-creates”.


There is an internal tussle too under Ambition & Quality (p.47). ACE opens up the ‘quality’ question (“excellence can be found…in both the process of participation and the work that is produced”) and offers to “continue to work with the cultural sector to establish a shared language around [quality]”. But then closes it down again: “in the end it will be the Arts Council’s responsibility to use our experience and expertise to make the judgments that determine those decisions.” We are hopeful though that the Alliance will work with ACE on how we can define quality around work that engages with health and wellbeing in a way that connects as much with ethics as aesthetics. (A new blog on 'quality' is coming soon...)

Vision or strategy

Lastly, Let’s Create could be accused of looking more like a vision than a strategy at times. Darren Henley acknowledges this:

If a Strategy spanning such a period is to succeed, it needs to be flexible, not rigid; a guiding light, rather than an instruction manual. So what we have set out here is not an action plan, but a vision… (p.60)

ACE is hamstrung to an extent by not knowing yet what its budget from government will be: “Change will take time and its pace will depend, in part, on the resources we have available”. Perhaps there is tacit acknowledgement of the risk of reduced funding in the commitment to “focus more strongly on our role as the national development agency”, using not just investment but also partnerships and advocacy. When it comes to the Inclusivity & Relevance investment principle, there is a bit of specificity around organisations developing agreed targets around representative governance and staffing, as well as audiences, and demonstrating that they are listening to their local communities, “particularly those that they are currently underserving”. But there is a lot of “we will push to” and “we will take steps to” (p.22). The words “ambitious” and “ambitions” tellingly appear 19 times. Without more specificity, this risks meaning not very much, but the real meat of the strategy may come with the publication of ACE’s Delivery Plans – due to be published at intervals across the next decade, and attached to performance measures and progress reports from ACE itself.  


There remains much to celebrate in the strategy, not least its acknowledgement of historic and continuing cultural inequalities. The film that ACE uses to introduce Let's Create says that it is about

Bringing us all together with the freedom to ask difficult questions and take a stand.

Let's hope this is carved into in the letter as well as the spirit of our Arts Council for the next ten years.



[1] “Rising health and social care costs will continue to place demands on public funding.” (p.10)

[2] Quoted in Francois Matarasso’s endlessly interesting 2019 book, A Restless Art – generously made available for free at