New arts chief on a mission to change people’s lives for better

The new head of Arts Council England was born and brought up on Teesside – and he’s on a mission to see “excellent” arts and culture made accessible to all.

The new head of Arts Council England was born and brought up on Teesside – and he’s on a mission to see “excellent” arts and culture made accessible to all. Joanne Welford met him.

IT’S funny what can ignite a passion in people. For some, that very first feeling of excitement that comes with standing on a football terrace can turn them into a fan for life in the blink of an eye. For others it might be a chance meeting, a subject in a book or maybe even a television programme that lights a lifelong interest. For Stockton-born Alan Davey, though, it was visits to pantomimes as a child that captured a passion for arts and culture that has propelled him to one of the top jobs in the sector in the country.

Alan, 46, is the new chief executive of Arts Council England, the body responsible for promoting arts and culture across the country.

It’s now his job to promote his passion through the government-funded body which also distributes Lottery money to the sector.

“Going to pantomimes at Stockton Hippodrome and at Billingham Forum started it all off,” smiles Alan. “And later on, visits to the Dovecot Arts Centre in Stockton.”

Alan, who is single, was born and bred in Stockton, his father William worked at ICI as an electrician and he still has family in the area.

He began his career in the civil service working for the Government in health and in culture – dual passions, he confesses.

When the Arts Council job came up, he decided to go for it and admits he was “gobsmacked” when he heard he’d got it.

“I will bring enthusiasm for the arts and a knowledge of what they can do to the job which is shown brilliantly in places like Middlesbrough. I have seen how culture can really regenerate areas. It is working across the North East.”

Alan has taken over the top job from fellow Teessider Peter Hewitt – who has left the job after 10 years at the helm.

It is interesting that an area of the country not historically known for its strong links to the arts has fostered two men to lead them.

Alan is one of just many people, though, who thinks that more and more people are embracing arts and culture – and that the Tees Valley is forging ahead and making a name for itself in the arts world.

He cites developments like Middlesbrough’s modern art attraction, Mima, which is attracting attention from all over the world.

“Newcastle and Gateshead have done a lot over the years but I think the Tees Valley is catching up – and they are doing it slightly differently,” he said.

“It is really making a difference.”

Middlesbrough is proving it does have a place on the cultural map of the country, he believes.

“That is the good thing about places like this,” he added, talking about Mima.

“It is a wonderful building and it does not feel out of place in Middlesbrough.”

Alan has taken on the new role, having left his former post as director of culture at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport after four years.

Before that, he was responsible for
designing the National Lottery at the Department of National Heritage and he also worked in the Department of Health where he was secretary to the Royal Commission on Long Term Care.

“I believe in changing people’s lives for the better and health and culture do that in different ways,” he says.

“I couldn’t be more excited about my new role. The arts in England have never been healthier, more challenging, innovative or popular.

“I want the Arts Council to be at the forefront of building on that success working with artists to reach even greater heights, leading the arts with passion and excellence and forging new partnerships that secure the position of the arts in national life.

“Building on what has been achieved by Peter Hewitt, I am confident that a creative, focused and entrepreneurial Arts Council can do just that.”

Visits to pantomimes as a child gave Stockton-born Alan Davey the passion for arts and culture that has propelled him to one of the top jobs in the sector in the country.

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