Theatre in Wales

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

The Arts Council of Wales

John Barnie's editorial in Planet 141 [extract]

The Arts Council of Wales has been criticised so roundly in recent months, including in the pages of Planet, that a bystander could be forgiven for concluding that it has been a disaster for the arts from its inception. This is not the case, however, and amid the loud, and sometimes self-serving, calls for the ACW's abolition, those directly involved in the arts would do well to stand back and look at t situation a bit more dispassionately.
The Arts Council's problems began in the 1980s when Thatcher's government began its stranglehold on the financing of the arts. It culminated - or so it seems from the outside - in the mid-1990s when, after years of cuts, the Council was ordered by the Welsh Office to slash its administration budget in order to divert more of its dwindling grant to the arts. It was at this point that the ACW appeared to lose its nerve. Whatever negotiations went on behind closed doors, in public it acquiesced, and instead of refusing to administer the cuts, or resigning en bloc - options that would no doubt have seemed too radical for administrators - the ACW set about a massive internal reorganisation. It was an exercise forced on it purely by government financial pressure, had nothing to do with improving efficiency, and added little to its over-stretched arts budget.
This "downsizing" had many consequences. One was the demoralisation of its staff - the ACW now has a bigger turnover of labour than a building site. Most importantly, however, in the shuffling of posts officers with responsibility for individual arts were downgraded in an ethos which was accountancy-led. If they remained in post, it was on a substantially lower salary and with considerably less power. The subject boards, consisting of leading artists and experts in relevant fields, suffered a similar fate. Members of the boards worked on a voluntary basis and played an important part in ensuring that ACW programmes in the various arts were of a high quality. They were also integral to the ACW's arm's- length policy. The boards still exist, but in an advisory capacity only, with none of the decision-making input that made them so important in the past.
Loss of nerve at the ACW manifested itself in other ways too: in the wholesale adoption of business-speak as the revamped organisation threw itself behind Thatcherite business ideology. The arts suddenly became an industry with an annual turnover, they are a major employer, the ACW produced corporate plans etc etc. None of this cuts any ice with artists, and it's hard to believe that the arts officers of the ACW take it seriously either. The managerial echelon put it there to placate government, to be seen to be falling in line. But this was a fatal mistake. Such inappropriate language doesn't provide protective colouring, which is what the ACW seemed to hope; it merely weakens its independent position still further, making it even more vulnerable to the dead hand that Thatcher - and Major and Blair - have set upon the arts.


What is needed is something that is far more radical but also in many circles unfashionable. In the first place, politicians at the Welsh and UK levels should abandon the petty-minded Thatcherite assault on the arts and show their good faith by reinstating a proper level of funding. Secondly, the Arts Council of Wales needs to regain the courage of its convictions. A body of this kind cannot be all things to everyone; it has to expect criticism, but it should stand by its decisions; and it should come out on the attack, rather than always appear to be hanging on the ropes. It must also throw off the tedious baggage of business-speak and PC-speak it has landed itself with in an attempt to conform to dominant aggressive trends. And finally it must employ arts officers with vision, people who are capable of intuiting where the good work is coming from, and who have the necessary resources to back it financially, resisting the populist tendency in the process. They should, in this, have the support of strong subject boards with their authority reinstated. If the ACW can do this, it will once again become a forcing house for new ideas and for the promotion of the best art that Wales can produce.
Beyond this, the ACW should disengage itself from the embrace of amateurism and instead seek ways to encourage serious rather than populist audiences for the arts, in co-operation with the education system that has also been busy selling the arts short in the past twenty years.

These would be big changes. They would seem retrograde to those entrenched on the populist front. They would consequently be difficult to bring off in face of the howls of the fashionable self-righteous. But it could be done especially if it's remembered that attack is the best form of defence.

author:John Barnie

original source: Planet Magazine #141
01 June 2000


Privacy Policy | Contact Us | ©2006 keith morris / red snapper web designs /