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New beginnings

  • Date: 9 November 2009
  • Area: South East
Felicity Harvest in front of Garden 2, Marc Quinn, 2009

Felicity Harvest in front of Garden 2, Marc Quinn, 2009. Credit: Photo: Jill Cochrane

Helping to envisage what an arts programme in a zoo might look like, funding an artist to develop skills in sugar sculpture, chairing a committee overseeing cultural and community projects inspired by 2012, and helping a district council to borrow a Rodin.

It's all been in a day's work during Felicity Harvest's extraordinary 20-year career at the Arts Council. Here, Felicity recounts some of the highlights of her tenure.

'The first big change in my time in what was then 'the funding system' was the Lottery,' Felicity says, 'which stimulated so many things including the capital developments that are such a strong feature of our region now.'

The refurbishment of the De La Warr Pavilion and the Brighton Dome complex, the Towner Museum of Contemporary Art and the Turner Contemporary are just some of those capital developments to which Felicity refers. 'And of course the Lottery has also funded the wonderfully flexible Grants for the arts programme,' she continues. 'Grants for the arts allows literally hundreds of diverse and creative projects to happen in the region each year  - community-based projects, research and development for artists, regional tours, new commissions and so much more.'

'Diverse' and 'wonderful' are just two of the huge range of superlatives Felicity uses when expressing her passion for the arts in the south east. Her most treasured arts experiences during her tenure are many and varied. 'There are genuinely too many to mention. Because I was very involved in the development of the De La Warr Pavilion, the opening exhibition there after its refurbishment is a memory I will always treasure.

'In terms of art allowing me to enter another world, Kate Adams' exhibition The Not Knowing of Another has to be very near the top of my list. I've also become a real devotee of site specific work, a genre that Brighton Festival is great at presenting, and DreamThinkSpeak's Don't Look Back was a fantastic example of this innovative kind of work.'

'I also have very fond memories of the 2001 Year of the Artist during which, among 100 artist-led events, we had an underwater brass band in a swimming pool in Woking - unforgettable!  And of course I regularly wear a number of my great art experiences, as I've long been a keen collector of contemporary jewellery.'

With memories like these, the Arts Council could be a hard act to follow and in terms of a future career direction, Felicity has plans that are indeed a distinct departure. 'I'm planning to train as a humanist celebrant,' she explains, 'conducting secular funerals, wedding blessings and namings. It's something I strongly believe in and think I could do well.'

In the immediate future, Felicity will be handing over the reins of the south east to Sally Abbott, the new Director, South East on 23 November, 2009. However, Felicity will be staying on with the Arts Council until June 2010 to work on international policy, and on the planned improvements to Grants for the arts: 'The Grants for the arts changes will allow us to provide a faster, more efficient service while retaining a real sensitivity to regional voices.'

As a figurehead for the south east arm of the national arts development agency, Felicity has played a lead role over the years in championing and advocating for a stronger public and state recognition of the importance of the arts. This is an area she feels strongly needs to be heard more clearly.

'A world without arts would be as unpleasant as a world without refuse collection and if there's anything I would like to see happen in the next 10 years it would be a stronger voice from the sector driving that home.'

Felicity's 40-year career in the arts means she takes the long view and her advice to those anticipating future challenges is simple.  'Don't panic,' Felicity advises. 'We've been in recession before, we've had changes in government before but we're still here and creative opportunities will always emerge.

'The south east is home to the most incredible number of imaginative, creative and generous people, by working collaboratively they can really build on the extraordinary things they do.

'We've come a long way as a region and I'm hugely proud in particular of the way the visual art gallery network has developed. It was a patchy picture 13 years ago but now we have an unrivalled network of galleries and I look forward very much to continuing to be a part of that - albeit as a visitor!'

As an illustration of the span of Felicity's journey she points out that her 20-year-old daughter was yet to celebrate her first birthday when Felicity began working for the Arts Council. Today, her daughter is studying for her own creative career in documentary photography. 'I suppose my utopian dream is that all young people should have the kind of eclectic exposure to the arts that my daughter has had."

'If I've made any contribution to that happening in the south east I'll really feel I've done something meaningful in my time here.'