Theatre in Wales

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

The Welsh Question

The head of the Welsh Arts Council quits, so does the Welsh Assembly minister responsible for culture, the flagship lottery project closes, there's a

There should be little cause for gloom in the arts community in Wales at present. The advent of a new coalition in the National Assembly has seen the appointment of a Minister for Culture, Liberal Democrat, Jenny Randerson. The Assembly's draft budget for the Arts Council of Wales (ACW) for the next three years posits a rise of more than 4 million, more than 20 per cent. These actions together with a plethora of reports - including a review of arts and cultural policy by the National Assembly and other reports on the record and structure of ACW - promise, at last, a raising of the profile of the arts in policy circles, the first moves towards realistic funding and a thorough overhaul of the ACW. This is real movement.

At the same time Welsh National Opera and Music Theatre Wales are creatively on song. The pack of successful Welsh actors is expanding. Wales is revelling in the success of Welsh bands. The visual arts are thriving, while the consensus in favour of a new gallery devoted to Welsh art widens. There is increasing hope that our unhappy track record in large architectural projects will be erased by a long delayed start on Wales Millennium Centre in the first half of 2001.

Yet it is difficult to detect a wholesale lifting of the spirit. The increased funding falls short of the increase won by the Arts Council of England. It has to absorb the costs of re-structuring the ACW, and it does not close the comparative funding gap with England opened up during four years of standstill funding and last year's 15 per cent for England and a mere 100,000 for Wales. The collapse of the Centre for Visual Arts in Cardiff provided a big dip in the rollercoaster life of the arts in Wales. It helps to be a serial optimist.

In recent years the ACW has suffered an implosion. Richard Wallace, a civil servant asked to conduct a management review of ACW, said it had lost the confidence of the arts community and had lost confidence in itself. The chief executive resigned and the chair, Sybil Crouch, who had inherited much of the problem, now chairs a council with mostly new members, an interim chief executive and a management team that must be beset by uncertainty as it faces the restructuring process. It will take some time to regain the confidence in itself that is the necessary foundation for effective advocacy.

It is a tragedy that Wales should be faced with an organisational vacuum, just as it is starting to fill the policy vacuum. The fact that one of the National Assembly's committees chose to review arts and cultural policy so early in the life of the new body was a source of great encouragement. Its report sets out high aspirations for a truly creative society that provides a very high, if unspecific, target for the new culture minister. Diversity, learning, enterprise, international reach - all these are sections of the report around which many can rally. The notion of the integration of creativity and the arts into other policy fronts is one everybody can applaud. But the report lacks balance. It defines the arts too much in terms of social engineering, and while acknowledging the work of the "national remit" companies, seems to do so with little enthusiasm. Those working in particular arts fields will be disappointed if they look for a thorough evaluation of and recommendations for their particular patch.

It is clear that it is the beginning and not the end of the debate. No report on culture and the arts can be definitive, but there are some big gaps still waiting to be filled. First, it is short of the kind of numerate assessment that Gerry Robinson made for England in his New Statesman lecture in June. Indeed, even the simple application of Robinson's formulae to the situation of many companies in Wales would have given the National Assembly some guidance on absolute levels of funding. That work now remains to be done.

It is theatre that will probably have the biggest cause for complaint, since the report demonstrates how difficult it is to achieve a consensus in the area of the ACW's most public failure. In effect, the committee passes the buck back to the ACW asking it to produce a strategy. "Text-based theatre" gets short shrift, on the basis of a questionable assumption that small-scale experimental theatre, in which Wales has a pretty good record, is somehow less "elitist" than mainstream theatre and more "appropriate for Wales".

Another assertion designed to make one swoon is that "of all the art forms, music is the most prone to elitism, taste and fashion". And this in the land of song, and eisteddfodau for young and old, where more young people participate in some form of musical activity than any other art form and where it was cheaper to sit in the most expensive seat for a Welsh National Opera performance than for a six Nations rugby international.

Elitism is a word that bedevils any discussion of the arts, but in Wales even more so. Yet it does not worry Welsh sports people in the same way. The Sports Council of Wales happily runs a support programme for the best talents under the title, Elite Cymru. Commentators at the Sydney Olympics lauded the British medal haul as the result of increased investment in 'the elite'.

The review calls for national remit companies to embrace more enthusiastically their community and education roles. That is a proper request - even if it underestimates what has been done to date - and one to which the national companies are already responding with redoubled energy. The quid pro quo should be a rather greater enthusiasm among our politicians for the best of the professional performing arts than is demonstrated in the report.

The most urgent task facing Jenny Randerson will be to manage the task of reorganising the structures. The Wallace report provided a very cogent analysis of the failures of recent times, and set out some of the values that should characterise a well-run public organisation, but his proposals for change are less convincing.

The National Assembly was created to fill a national policy vacuum. Wallace would enact a high degree of devolution, to four regional bodies. His proposals could see the Arts Council - or the Arts Agency that the Committee would prefer - squeezed between an Assembly intent on setting policy and a high degree of devolution to regional committees. He even suggests that "the Council itself should be built up from those committees," with at least half the Council members being direct representatives of the regional committees. It puts one in mind of the waggish definition of a region - an area larger or smaller than the last area for which we failed to find a solution.

Jenny Randerson would be wise to pause before rushing to implement everything in these reports. A considered synthesis is going to take another few months.

author:Geraint Talfan Davies

original source: Arts News, The Magazine of the National Campaign for the Arts
01 December 2000


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