Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Creu Cymru

An Article by Yvette Vaughan Jones for Agenda, The Institute of Welsh Affairs

From the perspective of continental Europe, the vicissitudes of the cultural and arts world in Wales over the past twelve months have appeared surrealistic. Like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Aspects of scale and judgement have been distorted where small insignificant items have appeared gigantic and fundamental policy issues overlooked. It may well have felt something like that for those on the ground too. With distance comes perspective and a sense that, given some bold thinking and strong nerves, the oversize blunders and the overlooked successes can be brought into some sense of order. There is some bold thinking going on as many of the reports and evidence given to the National Assembly for Wales review of arts and culture have revealed. There have been conflicting approaches, as you would expect, but lightening the clouds of negativity are statements of vision for the future. Those most interesting contributions grasp the new economy, the global opportunities and envisage a metamorphosed structure to support it.

The discussion document produced in June by the National Assembly for Wales' expert adviser, Ceri Sherlock offers a glimpse of a new approach particularly by focusing on those areas of work that are new and have evolved in spite of, rather than because of, public policy. He attempts to capture these elements and to forge a new way forward. By the time this article is published, a new Minister of Culture will have been in post for some months, a new Chair and new Committee debating the issues. I am sure I am not alone in hoping that the work that has been done over the past year will not go to waste.

Ceri's document defines culture broadly and suggests 'a pro-active agency for cultural stimulation' should be created. It would become a central focus for hitherto dissipated work on, creative industries; best practice comparators; European funding initiatives; cultural tourism and cultural heritage; and the creation of cultural products. It would put together a new unit the Creative Industries Development Group, Wales Arts International; a new task force to look at ICT and a regeneration and social inclusion group. Interestingly, these are all identified growth areas in the Arts and Cultural Industries Sector Study. This was prepared for the National Assembly for Wales, European Task Force in December 1998 as background material for the documents underpinning structural funds. The areas outlined are those most likely to benefit from funding from Europe over the next six years and so do not constitute a fantasy 'wish list' but have a real chance of being taken forward.

At the end of the document, he suggests that the new units, particularly the Creative Industries Development Group, 'should not be a strategic arm of the Arts Council of Wales, which neither has the ability expertise nor appropriate strategic acumen to become an active accelerator in this sector'. This is a fierce indictment but is it exposing the weaknesses of the current structure, the lack of vision of the actors or the difficulties in changing the culture of the organisation? The Arts Councils in the UK all suffer from the legacy of post war paternalism and have a long way to go to embrace the new atomised configuration of the weightless economy.

Larry Siedentop in his book Democracy in Europe argues that Europe is being driven by an economic agenda and that in the absence of a political theory to underpin it, it will fail In the same way, the policies of the Arts Council of Wales in recent years have been driven by administrative imperatives rather than cultural debate. The ACW consultation exercises themselves have been asking the same question over again - 'how do we spread this money around?' rather than asking the more important, and sensitive questions about what kind of cultural policy should underpin the spending. As a result of this the accumulated wisdom of these consultations exercise amounts to less than the sum of its parts. 'funding fewer better' is a reductionist rallying call that does little to inspire debate.

The discussion document produced by Ceri has tried to open up the debate, but because it was commissioned as a review, it has also had to synthesise comments made in the reports and make recommendations. Defining the sector rather than justifying the institutions has been important. Crystallising thoughts from the disaffected arts communities of Wales has been more difficult but he has avoided the common trap of trying to please all and has taken a step towards creating a cultural framework to stimulate the creative environment for which Wales has aspirations.

Among the most important results of the review will be the twin aspects of identifying that culture is the responsibility of a wider range of bodies than has been articulated before and acknowledging the importance of creativity throughout all areas of regional development.

Good models already exist in Wales of successful initiatives that have started up independent of traditional funding routes, Arts factory in the Valleys is one example, but there are relatively few new cultural enterprises that have started up entirely free from ACW and there remains still, or at least until very recently, the desire at least for the imprimatur of ACW, the supposed kitemark of quality, to help lever support from other sources.

To be entrepreneurial does not necessarily means eschewing all public support. Nor does it invariably lead to what has been disparagingly termed the commodification of arts. It is more that the cultural sector needs now to create a new set of references both financial and aspirational to match the new circumstances in which it finds itself operating. The tired subsidy/commercial tensions seem old-fashioned. It is new alliances that are needed not just the commercial exploitation of ideas (wasn't it a rock music writer who wrote the music for Thomas the Tank Engine and, presumably, had no problems picking up the royalty cheque?)

What is needed is the development of a new confidence - creators are vital for future economic success - and a re- positioning of artists. As information becomes the domain of the many not the few it is no longer a dominant currency. Similarly as art becomes more ubiquitous the potency of images becomes less - is the movement away from painting towards installation and from thing to concept a reflection of the downgrading of the image because it has become commonplace? So …Artists are more compilers, positioners, interpreters and communicators. In the world of information it is not just the content providers that are needed (and there is a lot of content that needs to be provided) but it is content communicators that are vital.

This is the time of e- Europe. There is an exponential growth of electronic communications. At the latest count, the European Commission had created 62 specific actions to stimulate e Europe all quantifiable and with target dates for achievement. The initiatives cover virtually all aspects of public policy - health, education, government, procurement, culture. The aim is to:

"Make the European Union the world's most dynamic and competitive area, based on innovation and knowledge, able to boost economic growth levels with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion".

At the Lisbon summit, the emphasis on e-Europe produced the tag the summit, but what was more significant was the subtle shift away from legislation as the tool for regulation and a move towards soft legislation and more specifically towards peer appraisal, measurement, target setting and benchmarking. To measure is to know and to know is to triumph. Size does matter - as well as what you do with it. The impact of this on the new economic order is that interpretation of data and self-regulation through networks will take over from compliance to rules. This will require clear shared understandings - communication.

Artists as communicators can start to build new alliances - with technicians to mediate messages and arrangement of content on line; with architects to mediate public space and behaviour; with educators; policy makers; in all fields they will need to help push the boundaries and communicate.

So, to go back to the Arts Review…It was wide ranging in its approach and inclusive in its constituency but we need to be asking some additional questions - In addition to whose culture and which artists? how are we going to increase creativity? - how will that translate into enterprises and how do we get our creators to engage in a wider world than the narrow arts and audience debates?

Changing attitudes and work practices needs to start in the training places both arts training and elsewhere. There should be more links with Universities and colleges more spinouts. In Finland, the new industry incubator units include artists and technicians as well as scientists and researchers. More "professionalising of the intermediaries" is needed - a phrase that has been considered dangerous within the cultural sector as it had connotations of "devouring" agents who take ten percent or the animateurs in community regeneration sector who are maligned as " pc interlopers telling the locals what to do".

The public/private divide is becoming less useful too. Investment in some of the dynamic private facilitators galleries / agents/ management companies could be very cost effective. It is these enterprises that will help make the artists rich and a small investment will pay dividends. Investment in research and development - the experimental side of the arts is suffering because assessment procedures are being applied unsubtly. Perfectly reasonable performance criteria that take into account the public demand are not always reasonable criteria in the field of research.

The recently commissioned Economic Impact of the Arts and Cultural Industries in Wales has not been used as the policy tool it was meant to be. Instead it has been used as an advocacy tool. Headlines have been bandied about 29,000 fte jobs, 1.2bn contribution to GDP etc. More importantly was what the document identified as practice in the field. The high proportion of inter-sector trading for example, which means that there is a strong correlation between different parts of the "supply chain" . It is clear that cutting off the R&D elements will have adverse consequences on the future of the industry as a whole. The document was intended to help create new structures for support, particularly in partnership with other agencies and not merely as an instrument to lever money from other agencies to carry out existing policies.

A fundamental re-alignment will be necessary if Wales is going to achieve its ambitious targets both economically and culturally. For once, it is not so much a question of money but of understanding, less a paucity of cash and more a poverty of action. There are the good ideas around, stimulated by the Arts and Culture Review - from here,over the water, it appears that someone needs to pull the lens into focus and create a sharp vision.

author:Yvette Vaughan Jones

original source: Agenda, The Institute of Welsh Affairs
10 January 2001


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