Following the conclusion of the British Council’s UK-Italy Season 2020 with the British Embassy in Rome, British Council Director Italy, Rachel Launay (RL), spoke to Jill Morris CMG (JM), British Ambassador to Italy and San Marino to reflect on the Season and the vital role of arts and culture in our future bilateral priorities.

The UK-Italy Season took place over twelve weeks in late 2020. The British Council’s first digital-led Season of Culture comprised over 55 virtual events spanning dance, literature, music, theatre and visual arts, embracing innovative digital technology and engaging over 450 cultural professionals.  

With the UK’s then imminent departure from the EU and the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Season’s timing was crucial. There was an urgency for the dialogue and artistic content to centre on social, economic and cultural recovery.  

A series of virtual Culture Salons connected UK and Italian arts and civic leaders to discuss the role of creative independents, cities, festivals and new business models for resilient societies. 

The Season provided a platform to reimagine a future with culture and collaboration at its heart, strengthening and creating new bilateral alliances for a richer and more sustainable future. 

RL: As the British Council’s first digital-led Season, why was it so important for this Season to go ahead in 2020 with the challenges posed by COVID-19?  

JM: When the season was first conceived, nobody could have foreseen at that point what ‘being present’ would mean in 2020. Bilaterally, the Season going ahead was an incredibly strong signal to Italy and Italians about our commitment to cultural relations, at a time when it is so challenging for cultural institutions. 

RL: Exactly - the Season provided us with an opportunity to stand together as the UK with Italy. To demonstrate how important the role of culture and the experience of culture is, at a time when we feel very absent from each other. The theme ‘being present’ seemed to really offer itself as a concrete demonstration of bringing people together, to experience something that had emotional resonance as well as a quality cultural experience. So, as often is the case, out of a crisis comes an incredibly important opportunity.  

RL: The Season provided a real people- to- people, institution-to-institution opportunity to galvanise the future relationship. What would you say are the UK and Italy’s shared priorities for 2021?  

JM: An unprecedented year, 2021 marks the UK and Italy’s respective presidencies of the G7 and G20 and our close collaboration co-hosting COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference. The UK and Italian Governments are committed to developing the framework for a bilateral cooperation agreement and we are likely to see culture and people-to-people links be an important pillar of any future cooperation agreement. 

This year the global agenda is challenging and the central themes that will run throughout it will be climate, health and of course the economy, as countries around the world look to recover from the health crisis.  

RL: The British Council commissioned soft power perceptions research by Ipsos MORI which was carried out during the Season. The data paints a picture of two countries with strong mutual regard and a high degree of trust in the people of each other’s countries. Young people surveyed in the UK and Italy also rated each other's country in the top six attractive countries in the G20. How important is this shared respect between the UK and Italy?  

JM: As two countries that have a shared history, shared values and very strong links, we have a great opportunity, as well as great responsibility, to work together multilaterally on the international stage whilst strengthening our bilateral relations in the first year after the end of the transition period. These findings indicate that we have a strong basis upon which to build.  

RL: When asked about values countries should be supporting in the 21st century, ‘equality, openness, diversity and the environment’ featured heavily in responses from young people in both Italy and the UK. The Next Generation Italy research launched during the Season also highlights the anxiety young Italians feel about their future, and their place in society and the world. What is clear from this research is their trust in the international community and the need for strong, fair, accountable and open institutions to help address these challenges. Would you agree? 

JM: Absolutely, and I believe the role of culture and education is at the heart of those solutions – that was something we discussed at the Pontignano Conference, another Embassy/British Council joint initiative, along with the desire to have more sustainable, more inclusive, open democratic societies. I mentioned the G7 open democratic societies, but there are other major government commitments and priorities such as girls’ education for example, and diversity and inclusion. The role that arts, culture and creativity play in reflecting our societies and the values of our societies is really important.  

RL: From the British Council’s perspective, we have a clear role (working together with the Embassy) to promote cultural exchange, educational opportunities and mutual understanding. In 2021, our role is to ensure that young people in particular have the opportunities to learn and develop between our two countries. And this is broader than just Italy with the UK – it is the UK and the EU.

It is through education and culture that we can offer, maintain and build trust.  

RL: From the Ipsos MORI research, when asked about what associations they typically make with the UK, many young Italians cited ‘language, multiculturalism and art’ in their responses. Can you say more about why culture matters in the shared priorities you’ve outlined? What would you say makes UK arts and culture such an important soft power asset? 

JM: The job of an Embassy, of an Ambassador, is to is to further bilateral relations in the interests of Britain and the interests of British citizens - looking after people and our culture. Building strong relationships underpins all of that because it amplifies the attractiveness of the United Kingdom, the attractiveness for tourists, for students, for business people, for investors. All this contributes to a more prosperous and a safer country back home. The role of the culture and arts sectors is extremely important in that, along with the role of the British Council. 

The British cultural sector is an enormous soft power asset around the world. The UK and Italy are two countries that have long admired each other’s cultures, and long respected each other’s country.

It's one of the reasons why we have such a rich collaboration on issues around cultural heritage, and cultural heritage protection for example. What I'm always struck by is the vibrancy of British arts and culture. It's not just about the past and the Grand Masters, it's about British contemporary culture that holds a real fascination for Italians.

In 2018 I hosted an event at my residence in Italy to open Pride Week in Rome, and the event was focused on the positive influences of British music and fashion on the LGBTQ community In Italy. The year after, in 2019, I also hosted a talk on the 'Fashion Revolution of the ‘60s' and the influence it had on the LGBT community. The events gave us an opportunity to showcase our values as well as the absolutely world class cultural product that comes from the UK.

For an Ambassador, it's an indispensable part of our armoury, so to speak. 

RL: For our future priorities, culture is becoming even more centre stage. How do you see the role of culture in taking forward the legacy of the UK-Italy Season?  

JM: In Italy, what this Season has done was to expand and deepen networks of influence across the cultural sphere. It has expanded our knowledge of each other, and we now have this strong, very energetic, enthusiastic and committed constituency, which is going to be invaluable as we take forward that building back better agenda. 

RL: This year we will establish the Italy Cultural Advisory Board which will support us collectively – British Council, the Embassy, the ‘British family’ (other UK cultural institutions in Italy) and the UK cultural sector – to have the best influence possible linked with priorities for the Italian cultural sector. We've learned to really listen to that sector. Without them, we would not have had the success and impact in the Season that we have had, and it's because we worked hand in hand with the Italian cultural sector to achieve that. Our legacy is to continue to have that influence, advice, input and insight from the cultural sector via this Board. 

As the UK embarks on a new chapter in its relationship with Italy and the EU, increased exchange in culture, as well as collaboration on finding solutions to key global challenges, present valuable routes to a deeper strategic partnership.