Theatre in Wales

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

Remember to Dream

ACW Conference Preview

Geraint Talfan Davies
Chairman, Arts Council of Wales

In 1946 few people would have thought that Llangollen would achieve the international recognition it has today. Someone, in a small town in rural north Wales, in the wake of the devastation wrought by the worst war in the history of mankind, had retained the ability to dream and the resolve to realise that dream.

Idealism, imagination, resolve and the collective effort of a whole community gave a whole town a raison d’etre and Wales and the world an iconic event.

For that reason, if for no other, Llangollen is a fitting place for the arts community of Wales to gather next week for the second annual Arts Council of Wales conference. For although our International Eisteddfod is unique, that process of putting dreams into action is happening in many different ways in communities across Wales - and I don’t just mean the big projects such as the Wales Millennium Centre or the Artes Mundi prize.

In the last year I have seen it in smaller, more and more intimate ways in many, many places - a map of epiphanies and imaginative sustenance brought about by talented and committed individuals:

in Llandrindod where Celf o Gwmpas brings the arts to people suffering from all kinds of disabilities allowing them to produce, for example, beautiful works of painted silk or a photographic project that leads them to see the world around them differently;

in Pembrokeshire’s Narberth where the Queen’s Hall provides a centre of community arts that not only enriches the lives of individuals through music and painting but has also helped revive and sustain a rural town;

in Holyhead at Ucheldre where the transformation of a disused convent has created a centre of music and art that animates a disadvantaged estate;

in Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre where young people, some troubled and unused to praise, draw new strength from unfamiliar applause.

The list could be ten times longer because these things are happening in every part of Wales – a wide, but less publicised base to the Welsh arts pyramid. I say less publicised, but my sense is that it is being noticed more than it was. Where a decade ago the arts community felt it was crying in a wilderness, now it is getting a hearing. People are feeling the pull of the arts and sensing their value, sometimes their transformative value.
Significantly, the Assembly’s Culture Committee is currently conducting a review of the impact of sport and the arts on regeneration. It is a timely study, and I believe it arises from the increasing realisation that, in tackling our economic and social problems, it is some of the ‘softer’ factors that may make the biggest difference. This may be a secular world, but it is the spirit of individuals and of communities that are crucial to the process of beneficial change.

And it is that spirit that the arts address – imaginatively, effectively, and extraordinarily cheaply. This year the Arts Council will spend £1m on 24 community arts organisations that in the past 12 months have engaged no less than 414,000 people of all ages in their work – 14% of the Welsh population at a cost of about £2.50 per head. Potentially life enhancing experiences, for not much more than the cost of a railway sandwich.

That speaks volumes not only for the ability of these organisations to engage with large numbers of people, but also of the appetite of people for what they offer. The same is true of more conventional arts organisations.

The other 100 organisations funded by the Arts Council have also shown a sharp increase in the numbers of people attending performances (up 14%) and participating in events (up 22%).

In March, the middle month of the Artes Mundi exhibition, more people went through the doors of the National Museum in Cardiff than in any March since the Museum opened in 1927. Nearly 63,000 – almost a Millennium Stadium full – visited the exhibition. Who says there is no appetite for contemporary art?

WNO’s ticket sales this spring are 14% ahead of target with the prospect next year of 250 £5 tickets available for every WNO performance at the new Wales Millennium Centre.

For the first time the Welsh Book of the Year award scheme is achieving real visibility in some of major book stores in Wales - something that is sure to result in a significant increase in sales.

Next week’s conference will be about maintaining this momentum, making the most of the Assembly Government’s funding increases for the arts, finding ways of ensuring that the steadily declining lottery funding does not eat away at the base of the pyramid or its shining tip, ensuring that the increasing awareness and understanding of the value of the arts, among all our partners in government and public agencies and the private sector, is translated into tangible support of all kinds.

We need to persuade local authorities in particular that that although growth and revival may need all kinds of policy instruments, it is fundamentally based on remembering to dream, on sowing the seeds of enlightened ambition.

In the fields of equal opportunities, cultural diversity and the Welsh language the favoured approach to realising our aims is called “mainstreaming”. We need to start talking about mainstreaming the arts, making it natural for us to seek a cultural return in every area of policy and expenditure.

A few weeks ago the author Philip Pullman wrote pleading that our children should be given wider access to the arts. He said:

“Children need to go to the theatre as much as they need to run about in the fresh air. They need to hear real music played by real musicians on real instruments as much as they need food and drink. They need to read and listen to proper stories as much as hey need to be loved and card for.

“The difficulty with persuading grown up people about this is that if you deprive children of shelter and kindness and food and drink and exercise, they die visibly; whereas if you deprive them of art and music and story and theatre, they perish on the inside, and it doesn’t show.”

That is as true of communities as it is of children. It is also true of nations.

author:Geraint Talfan Davies

original source: Arts Council of Wales
07 May 2004


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