Theatre in Wales

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

Creative Regions - a Positive Culture

Yvette Vaughan Jones looks at the role of the cultural industries in Wales

Intelligent regions, creative regions the Europe of the Regions and the Europe of Cultures are all phrases aimed at pushing regions into a contemporary significant zone. The attempt is laudable, it is to get as far away as possible from creating "nation states in little" or from whipping up an ersatz nationalism. New regionalism takes a leaf from new industries book and is supposedly light, flexible and well networked. What all these titles have in common, though, is the desire to change the culture within regions and to instil a sense of confidence and dynamism that acknowledges the individuality and creativity of regional cultures rooted in traditions and looking forward.

Culture, as Raymond Williams said is "one of the two or three most complicated words in the English Language" and yet, creating a positive culture is probably the single most important challenge to Wales over the next few years. Without the culture of creativity and confidence the Structural Funds will be no more than an injection of money - a shot in the arm of a body unable to assimilate or synthesise it.

Creating a positive culture is not so easy and it is equally not a simple matter to understand the link between successful regions and culture. Epithets such as " intelligent, learning, innovative, highly skilled, high added value, flexible, dynamic, outward looking all characterise the kind of region that has a successful economy - Is it the mind-set that created the economy or is it that the successful economy provides a greater disposable income that can then be spent on cultural products? Or is it more that the relationship between culture and creativity is one of mutual values - valuing culture for its intrinsic enrichment - rather than commodification or commercial investment and seeking new solutions to emerging problems. The causal link, though, is not proven and more work on the subject would be extremely useful..

High investment by governments in cultural industries seems to follow strong economies and that Catalonia, as an autonomous regional government , and presumably with a vested interest in promoting its distinctiveness, is in the forefront of this. But there are anomalies, for example, although the US investment by the government is tiny, the culture of corporate giving to the arts and culture is far more advanced than elsewhere and the support for the industry is much disguised.

The key problem is that there are no reliable statistics. Until the cultural industries are disaggregated from "leisure, tourism and other", it is going to be impossible to make useful comparisons. The Right Honourable Chris Smith MP, Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport gave the keynote speech at the recent WERU conference. Here he acknowledged the problem and pledged to make some moves towards influencing statistics gained from the forthcoming census. It is depressing, though, to find that the Economic Impact of the Arts and Cultural Industries In Wales report, commissioned in 1998 still does not have any impact on the Welsh statistics concerned with economic development and little use can be made of the findings apart from saying that the sector is significant. The report was supposed to be a policy tool rather than an advocacy tool but without the ability to integrate the results into other statistical data, it is only the headline figures that are used - 29,000 people employed in the sector, a contribution of 1.2bn per annum to GDP etc.

Using the statistics produced by Chris Smith's own Creative Industries Task Force Mapping Document, we see that the total employment in the creative industries is highest in London and the South East and lowest in Wales and the North West and North East - a position that reflects economic performance in the UK. However, given the existence of the national cultural institutions, the broadcasters and two languages, you would expect the percentage of employment in the creative industries to be higher in Wales than elsewhere, and yet it is still comparatively low.

The creative industries, and cultural entrepreneurs have had a good press recently both in Wales and UK wide - they are growth industry and they hit all the right political and economic buttons; good on social inclusion; high value-added; global markets expanding; and they should be part of the clutch of knowledge-based industries that will have us, in Charles Leadbeaters phrase, "Living on Thin Air". Wales has its share of cultural entrepreneurs - they are mentioned in the Demos book the Independents and the Cardiff media makers are there with the rest. But Wales is in danger of believing its own hype - will we be living on thin air, or are we skating on thin ice?

How can Wales develop its cultural industries and ensure that creativity gets a higher profile in all sectors of the Welsh economy? Wales needs to invest in the raw materials of culture, the R&D elements, to ensure a positive future because these will be helpful in stimulating creativity as well as jobs. It also needs to look differently at the resource of the arts and culture itself. Creators are vital for future economic success - and a re- positioning of artists is necessary. As information becomes the domain of the many not the few it is no longer a dominant currency. Artists are 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.

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.

These alliances offer new emphases for cultural players. Translation of these roles into a new kind of regeneration, for example, - whereas land reclamation in the past has been about papering over the cracks - "paint it green and plant some trees", some bold projects in Tampere and in North Rhine Westfalia have been about understanding the importance of the post-industrial buildings - acknowledging the symbolic landscapes converting oil refineries into theatre and leisure spaces and manufacturing plant into studios.

Exploring the links between disciplines also characterises the new generation of regeneration. Creative exchanges - learning from the fusion of arts, science and technology to attempt to put into practice the notion that creativity is non-denominational. Some schemes in Finland where Centres of Expertise include creators from all fields would be worth duplicating in Wales not only for the hoped-for synergies and innovations that can emerge but because inclusivity can be an important civilizing force enobling all players. In Welsh, di-wylliant means "not wild" - the civilizing force. New regeneration schemes need to look beyond infrastructure and look to an intellectual infrastructure paving pathways from ideas to icons - the weightless economy needs new support structures that stimulate the realisation of fairly amorphous ideas whether it is an internet solution or a servicing new needs that are yet to emerge.

Public policy is key in developing cultural policy but it is fraught with complex decisions. What is the ambition? Is it to promote cultural democracy, bringing more culture to more people or democratisation of culture changing perceptions of what constitutes culture ? Should there be an emphasis on creation of art for its own sake or recognising arts as an instrument for development? Is there consensus that all art is good for you? Or are there times when it is important to define the terms of engagement. There are also issues about the spread of resources . Should the balance be towards infrastructure or activity - the art or the artist? Should public intervention be towards consumption or production - audience or creator? Equally problematic is the decision on whose culture it is anyway. Is there a priority for the external image or internal reality - is it for visitors or residents? And linked to this is the question of the relative weighting towards heritage or contemporary culture? What needs to be done to promote real cultural diversity?

Wales is not unique in having many cultural interests to be met - but some interesting characteristics have emerged. The public policy has been more reflective of the history of participation and community involvement than other parts of the UK - eisteddfodau have meant that a far greater number of young people have been involved in creative pursuits as part of their school life. Rural networks feature in the way that the arts has organised itself in Wales, theatre in education, community dance projects, touring theatre networks etc. It has been said that it was the advent of television that created professional theatre in Wales so the model of funding for culture in Wales does not follow the received UK model. There is no reason why the future cannot also bring a fresh and unconventional approach to the role of arts and culture in Wales. But we are in danger of spending more time clutching at the phantoms than translating ideas into action. What is needed to make the difference is hard-nosed reality matched with the big ideas. To believe that anything is possible is the right starting point for the six years of Structural Funding to come but coupled with this there needs to be a solid understanding of what the new industries will need to survive - skills, investment, market development etc. and what steps are needed to reach that point. We all know that the Euro-funding tap will be turned off post 2006 so what really will be sustainable in the next decades and what do we need to get there?

The Assembly offers opportunities for Wales to move quickly into a creative society. Wales has already a cultural distinctiveness and vitality, - a history of strong internal partnerships strengthened by the Assembly's requirements to work with the private sector, with local government and the voluntary sector. The arts communities in Wales have, for some time worked with many partners. The National Assembly' Arts and culture Review report makes bold recommendations that offers a framework that builds on this plurality and shows a way forward that could transform aspiration into action. How far the recommendations can be translated into reality is a major challenge for the administrations in Wales. For once, it is not cash that will determine the direction of arts and culture but intellectual courage

author:Yvette Vaughan Jones

original source: The Welsh Economic Review
10 January 2001


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