Friday 13 April 2018


Some observations by Graham Sheffield: Director Arts, British Council 2011-2018

Arts has always played its part in peacebuilding. Twenty years ago the frontmen from U2 and Ash held a concert in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall that swung the ‘Yes’ campaign for the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. Ex-NME editor Stuart Bailie has now written a book entitled Trouble Songs, supported by the British Council, which addresses how music can open minds and advance conflict resolution. About that time in history, the book says: “It was a very significant moment. It symbolised everything the Good Friday Agreement was: orange and green, Unionism and Nationalism, coming together. It changed the dynamic.” 

Now in 2018, the British Council is marking this anniversary in Northern Ireland with an international peacebuilding conference, Peace and Beyond. This will look beyond Northern Ireland towards other models of peace-building in countries such as South Africa, Colombia, Lebanon and the Western Balkans, and will specifically examine the role of the Arts. 

There is a growing recognition of the contribution of arts and culture to peacebuilding and alternative narratives; although of course, it’s not a “one role show”!

Arts in the British Council had always been about showcasing the “best of British”.  But the mission, as stated back in 1941, when we achieved our royal charter and our charitable independence, was also to “build trust and mutual understanding between the peoples of the world through culture, education and the English language.  A broader interpretation of “mutual understanding” implies to me a broader interpretation of our arts purpose, which is to demonstrate a strong and genuine interest in the culture of others in order to interest them in what you have to offer.  And this is how we have striven to deliver our programme.  It is a challenging task, as there rarely are “quick wins”, but rather the benefit back to the UK comes in subtler, less direct and more extended ways, as well as being more sustainable in the long term.

The British Council embraces Arts and Social Change in a variety of ways: in social and creative entrepreneurship, in skills capacity building for emerging arts sectors, in arts and women’s empowerment, in areas around freedom of expression, in cultural heritage protection, and in arts and peace building.  Certain views within the development world bureaucracy continue to regard the arts with suspicion in this last area, not to mention a certain patronising disdain.  But there is increasing evidence that the arts have a substantive role to play in this area, and it’s an area of work to which many arts practitioners in the UK and overseas are passionately committed.

I guess that Arts and Peace-building comes mid way between the ‘hard power’ of defence and the ‘soft talk’ of regular diplomacy.  But whereas these latter two are led by governments, the deployment of the arts in the arena of peace-building is much the stronger for being independently led and inclusive.  And that’s the strength of the British Council’s work, as well as the other organisations and artists with whom we collaborate.  We - and the arts - can go where regular politics and diplomacy cannot go, we can open up discussions and debates they cannot do, we can operate on subtler more inclusive platforms.

And the arts can often be divisive, as certain long-held cultural and artistic traditions on one side of a divide can often be seen as provocative by the other.  There is no magic formula, but a carefully convened and creative approach to the arts in divided societies can and do make a difference; the arts can help people to open up, to listen, tell stories, share similar experiences, show empathy and understanding of former enemies.

I have been proud to play a small part in the bringing together of former veterans from both sides of the conflict between the UK and Argentina in the 1980’s in the South Atlantic.  Three years ago a visionary Argentinian theatre director Lola Arias brought together a small group of veterans from each side of the conflict to develop a piece of theatre around the impact of war on each of their lives, whether from the UK or Argentina.  The British Council funded the UK veterans to go to Buenos Aires to the initial rehearsals.  The piece was called Minefield and, having been a significant success at LIFT and the Brighton Festival in 2016, it returned as our signature show in Spirit of 47, a collaboration between the British Council, the Edinburgh International Festival to mark 70 years of the Festival in 1947, which the British Council was instrumental in setting up - in itself a remarkable early example of Arts and Peace-building.

Minefield, in my view, is a highly original and powerful demonstration of the arts in the peace process.  It was not about who was right or wrong, but embraced the common human experiences of both sides of the conflict through drama.  Minefield has now gone on to a further tour around England supported by Arts Council England.  It hasn’t solved the Falklands/Malvinas issue on its own - it was never intended to do so, but it is a contribution to a series of major initiatives recently emerging between the two countries, in education, cultural exchange, access to the islands for relatives of the Argentine fallen.  Many will be inspired by the courage of the British and Argentine veterans - who had never acted before - in opening themselves up emotionally and intellectually in this way.

Cynthia Cohen, Ph. D., Brandeis University noted in 2005:  “Arts and conflict is often painted into a corner of story-telling - painting new narratives, or challenging old ones.  But if culture is a central facet of our humanity, then arts and culture is needed in the times when we address what it is to be human, and to live peacefully side by side with others.”



The British Council is hosting an international peacebuilding conference in Belfast on 10-12 April 2018. More information about the conference can be found here: 




Notes to Editor

About Graham Sheffield

Graham Sheffield is Director Arts for the British Council, having taken up his role in May 2011.  He is responsible for leading and delivering a global arts strategy and programme across the British Council's 110 country operation.

From 1995-2010 Graham was Artistic Director of the Barbican Centre in London. Under his directorship, the Barbican became one of the most innovative, dynamic and respected centres in the arts world, with an award-winning international programme across the art forms. 

In the last three years he has driven a major expansion and rebuilding of the arts programme at the British Council, defining a new vision, developing new arts specialists in the global network, planning major extended seasons of work in Brazil, China, Qatar, India, Mexico and South Africa, as well as responding ambitiously to social and political change in the Middle East, Gulf and North Africa. 

Under Graham’s leadership, the arts programme has grown in size and received more investment: to launch a Cultural Skills programme, expand the work within the Creative Economy, develop a digital arts programme and refresh and enlarge the British Council’s internationally renowned Art Collection – a vital contributor to work overseas in cultural relations.

Graham graduated in Music from Edinburgh University and worked as a Radio 3 producer at the BBC for 12 years.  From there he went to the Southbank Centre as Music Projects Director for 5 years, during which time he founded the world-renowned Meltdown Festival.  He also served as CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong in 2010. He was Chair of the Royal Philharmonic Society (2007-2010), and consulted to the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity in Toronto.  From 2004-2006 Graham was Chair of the International Society of Performing Arts and a council member of Arts Council England, London (2002 – 2008). In 2014, Graham took up a new role as Chair of the UK’s largest music charity, Help Musicians UK and joined the Board of Rambert.

He was awarded CBE in the 2010 New Year’s Honours’ list for services to the arts and was made Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2005. He is an honorary Doctor of Arts at City University.

Graham was honoured in January 2015 by ISPA with the International Citation of Merit for lifetime achievement in the arts.

About the British Council

British Council Northern Ireland creates international opportunities for the people of Northern Ireland and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide. We are a Royal Charter charity, established as the UK’s international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. Our 7000 staff in over 100 countries work with thousands of professionals and policy makers and millions of young people every year through English, arts, education and society programmes.  A quarter of our funding comes from a UK government grant, and we earn the rest from services which customers pay for, education and development contracts we bid for, and from partnerships. For more information, please visit:

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