Theatre in Wales

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

Valuing our independence in the arts

Do the arts exist simply as a function of government? Is the work that most of us are performing in the arts simply an aspect of governmental “deliver

I had never thought that could be the case until recently.

The news that The Arts Council of Wales was being asked to give reasons to The Welsh Assembly Government for its continued existence as an autonomous body will not fill everybody working in the arts in Wales with dismay. But it should.

Unfortunately, there has been too much injury inflicted by previous Arts Council of Wales regimes on some in the arts sector in Wales for this news to be greeted without schadenfreude in some quarters and a whiff of opportunism in others. However, this feeling is rooted mainly in how The Arts Council of Wales has operated tactically in the past, rather than in how it should operate in principle, or as an ideal.

In the past, The Arts Council of Wales suffered from the level of interest in, and tolerance of the arts by the pre-devolution Secretary of State for Wales. Given that the interest was not often forthcoming, The Arts Council of Wales was in a position of working with, on the one hand, a meagre budget and, on the other, very little accountability. The post-devolution scenario has been transformed, however, with much greater accountability and a welcome, but limited increase in funds. Freed from the past, The Arts Council of Wales has started to act as an independent advocate. Under Sybil Crouch and Geraint Talfan Davies, it has shown the willingness and bravery to adapt to new conditions, while moving towards a role as a development organisation for the sector. This system is not perfect yet, but, effectively, we now have a tripartite structure that is showing signs of working and working well.

Together, the Culture Ministry and the Culture Committee are doing a very capable job of outlining general strategy and ensuring that The Arts Council remains accountable. The Arts Council is left to formulate relevant strategies and to deliver the funding. In this, the discretion and ability of officers to make decisions without political interference is absolutely vital to the neutrality of this process. The artists and the many organisations with an interest in the arts in Wales can get on with their work, contribute to the strategies and, if they are unhappy about anything, can make their voices heard, not least by playing one off against the other.

As artists, I am sure we would all like more money for our work. On the other hand, I am sure that very many Assembly Members would like their constituents to benefit most from the available arts funding. However, if we remove The Arts Council of Wales from this equation, we could easily return to a situation where the good work that has been done on all sides in recent years is reversed. The idea that independence can be safeguarded by a legal sanction of freedom of expression, as has been suggested, is just not realistic, especially if the simpler thing to do is to remove an organisation’s funding on the basis of the work not complying with a governmental objective, or, even worse, by simply rewriting the law.

No, the very real danger is that the political dialogue that has begun around the arts in Wales, painful as it has been at times, has been hugely beneficial for all parties concerned. Politicians have developed a greater understanding of the benefits and the needs of the arts. The Arts Council has realised the need to be accountable and to be an advocate. And artists are benefitting from being listened to in a way that has never happened before. Inevitably, not everyone will get what they want, but that is in the nature of a democratic process and, in my view, there is no question that this important political dialogue, let alone the vibrancy and autonomy of the arts, would be hugely diminished if The Arts Council of Wales was no more.

Recently, Tessa Jowell the Minister for Culture at UK level has provoked an important debate with her essay “Government and The Value of Culture.” Within it, she makes this point, “Too often politicians have been forced to debate culture in terms only of its instrumental benefits to other agendas – education, the reduction of crime, improvements in wellbeing – explaining – or in some instances almost apologising for – our investment in culture only in terms of something else. In political and public discourse in this country we have avoided the more difficult approach of investigating, questioning and celebrating what culture actually does in and of itself.”

If we are to avoid the arts becoming nothing more than an instrumental arm of government, we should all support The Arts Council of Wales to develop and improve, rather than allow it to be assimilated into the Welsh Assembly Government with the consequent disruption and loss of independence that would follow.

Simon Harris
Artistic Director
Sgript Cymru – Contemporary Drama Wales.

author:Simon Harris

original source:
09 August 2004

 

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