Theatre in Wales

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

Artistic License

The arts community in Wales is nervously awaiting its fate, as the Welsh Assembly Government decides this month whether to take over the Arts Council

When Rhodri Morgan, first minister of the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG), announced that all Assembly sponsored public bodies – or quangos, as they are affectionately known – would be dissolved and their duties absorbed by WAG, it signalled a welcome end to the bureaucracy that has surrounded organisations such as the Welsh Development Agency and the Welsh Tourist Board.

But the news that this could extend to include the Arts Council of Wales, National Museums and Galleries of Wales and The National Libraries of Wales came as a great shock, with virtually all arts organisations in Wales opposed to the proposals.

An Arts Council has existed in Wales since 1950, firstly as part of the Arts Council of Great Britain, but in 1994 an independent Arts Council of Wales was established, along with bodies for England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. As well as increasing the awareness and accessibility of arts in Wales, ACW finances organisations with both grant-in-aid money from the Assembly, and funding from the UK government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which comes from Britain’s national lottery.

But later this month that could change, when the Assembly announces whether it will dissolve the ACW and take over its duties.

Unsurprisingly the ACW has great doubts about the proposals. Top of the list, according to Iestyn Davies, ACW’s head of communications, is the impact this would have on freedom of expression; if the Assembly took over the ACW it would effectively be a form of arts patronage, without the arms-length principle the council has always worked under.

“The only way you can have direct government sponsorship of the arts is if you have direct government support for arts legislation,” he says. “But that would need to be an act of primary legislation and the Assembly [which only has secondary legislation powers] wouldn’t be able to pass that law.” He thinks it unlikely the UK government would introduce such a bill.

“We don’t want that political interference,” insists Peter Doran, artistic director of Torch Theatre, Milford Haven, one of the few producing theatres in Wales. “If a young playwright, for example, applied to the Arts Council for a grant he would be judged on the quality of his work. If his last play had been anti-establishment, would the Assembly feel it could give that person a grant?”

Val Hill is administrative director of Cardiff-based Hijinx Theatre, which tours to communities across Wales that don’t usually have access to theatre, and an executive member of the Wales Association for the Performing Arts. She worries direct Assembly sponsorship would affect the type of projects staged. “Will we all find ourselves generating theatre to get funding, trying to make projects to fit the funding that is there depending on the priorities of ministers?” she asks.

Long-term planning, she says, would be impossible. “We commission new plays, so we’re already thinking about 2006 and 2007. Where does that leave us if there is an election half way through and priorities change?”

There is also a question mark hanging over the issue of lottery money. As a government body the Assembly could not administer this funding.

Peter Doran is concerned this could mean applying for funding from two different sources that might have no idea what the other is up to.

“Torch is a good example of the benefits of a one-stop shop,” he says. “We had a lottery grant of £3m to redevelop the theatre, but this was a decision made in line with what we were doing work wise.

“If two separate bodies are making different decisions you could end up with money for theatres but not have any for the shows.”

Phil Clark, artistic director of Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, shares this fear. “It would double the administration,” he says. “What I’m interested in is ensuring money spent on arts goes to the artist to be creative with. We don’t want more admin.”

The Sherman is one of two organisations in Wales, along with Rubicon Dance, that has charitable status with the ACW as trustees. This is another duty the Assembly would be unable to adopt. “I’m not sure how it would work under these proposals,” says Clark, acknowledging that the theatre would have to find a new trustee.

There could also be a serious impact on staff, warns Iestyn Davies as ACW salaries are currently paid for with a combination of lottery and grant-in-aid money. “If the Assembly wanted to take on board our senior officer for music because of his expertise, for example, they would need to find grant-in-aid to make up the lottery part of the salary,” he explains. “This role would also need to be duplicated for the body that administers lottery money.” He worries that new staff appointed by the Assembly could come from a civil service background and therefore be less sensitive to the needs of artists than the current ACW staff, many of whom are artists themselves.

No one from the Assembly will speak about the advantages of the proposal until the final announcement is made in November. In its favour though, the Assembly has shown an increased commitment to the arts; last month’s draft budget showed an extra £35m available to arts, sports and the Welsh language, on top of a £2 million package to fund arts projects outside Cardiff – although this money is administered by the ACW – to complement the money it has given to Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre.

Peter Doran thinks the proposed new structure could have one advantage. “It could put pressure on local governments to fund arts better,” he suggests. “The Arts Council can’t put pressure on councils to match its funding, but the Assembly could say ‘that’s your allocation and that’s how you will spend it’; now it is discretionary.”

Janek Alexander is director of Chapter Arts Centre, a Cardiff-based venue that stages alternative theatre, film and exhibitions. He’s opposed to the idea but says, “If politicians understood more what things cost they might agree higher public subsidy of the arts. The success of the Wales Millennium Centre shows the benefit of close Assembly involvement in a project.”

Above all, there is a fear that the progress the Arts Council Of Wales has made since 1994 could be undone.

“For so long there was never a period of calm where we could get on with it,” says Doran. “Things have changed since 2000’s Assembly-commissioned report into the ACW, which recommended more transparency and accountability.

“To disband now, when we’ve finally got something we, the arts, are happy with, would be a very expensive, lengthy process with no guarantee we would end up with anything better.

“And if things change again in four years time,” he says, “I don’t think the arts have the stamina to cope.”

author:Cathryn Scott

original source: Big Issue Cymru
26 November 2004


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