Theatre in Wales

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

Statement on the Arts Council for Wales

Rhodri Morgan comments on the Arts Council of Wales

The First Secretary Rhodri Morgan:
There have been three recent major developments concerning the Arts Council for Wales. First, Members will be aware that Joanna Weston, the Chief Executive of the Council, recently felt it appropriate to tender her resignation, which was accepted. This was her own decision and she handled a difficult situation with considerable dignity. It would be entirely appropriate to record the Assembly's appreciation of the efforts of Ms Weston, who provided loyal and valuable service to the Council in many respects during a period of significant change for the Council, a point that the Wallace report also confirmed.

Frances Medley, the Council's planning director, has been appointed as Acting Chief Executive. The Chair of the Council has been asked to put in place arrangements to fill the post, on a permanent basis, as soon as possible. It is for the Council itself to make such an appointment through open competition, although the appointment must be approved by the Assembly.

Second, Members will be aware that Tom Middlehurst commissioned Richard Wallace, to undertake an independent management review of the Council. Mr Wallace presented his final report some weeks ago, which is in the public domain. Tom Middlehurst reported previously to Members that he accepted the recommendations contained in the Wallace report which, in summary, involve: restructuring the Council, with a particular focus on its regional delivery; rearranging its finance functions; improving the planning and management of its work; creating greater openness; and, revising its procedures. The Council itself has considered the report and welcomed its recommendations. Tom Middlehurst met with the Chair of the Council to consider the actions the Council needs to address. The Council is presently undertaking further, detailed analysis of the recommendations and is to prepare a detailed action plan, for the relevant Assembly Secretary's approval, for implementing such recommendations.

The third development was the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report on theatre for young people. Members may be aware of the publication last Friday of the PWC review of the implementation of the theatre for young people strategy. This report, commissioned by the Arst Council, notes many major weaknesses in how this process was managed and makes a number of specific recommendations. Once again, the Council has accepted the conclusions that were drawn and has already taken steps to start to put things right. By making public this report, the Arts Council is demonstrating its appreciation of the need to be more open than has previously been the case. The Arts Council recognises its own weaknesses and the need to tackle them.

Nobody doubts the increasingly important impact of arts and culture on our society. The Assembly should ensure that the strategy that underpins such developments is appropriately supported and is delivered effectively. There have been difficulties within the arts in Wales, but I am confident that we are now taking the necessary steps to put the arts back on a firm footing as far as public advocacy and administration are concerned. I am sure that we will have a useful, albeit brief, consideration of this matter today, and I look forward to hearing Members' views.

Owen John Thomas: Plaid Cymru has already welcomed the report. We are pleased to see the suggestion that the decision making process should be devolved so that communities can do what they wish rather than receive orders from Cardiff. We also welcome the suggestion that things should be more transparent and that the Council should be more accountable to the clients that it represents. We also welcome the opinion that the confidence of the cultural community should be regained and strengthened as it does not exist at present. We welcome the opinion that radical changes are needed to release this council's huge potential to strengthen culture and the arts in Wales. We look forward to seeing the Welsh Arts Council making a substantial contribution to the development of cultural tourism that has huge implications for the economy of Wales.

The First Secretary: I am not sure if there were questions in the statement for me to answer. I think that Owen John Thomas was referring to the Wallace report. He agrees, and I also agree with the report's recommendations. I believe that we all agree on this. I am grateful for his contribution.

Jonathan Morgan: The Welsh Conservative Party's view is that the Arts Council for Wales, in its present form, has come to the end of its natural life. The Arts Council has lost the confidence of the arts community. Those of us who have been involved in the Assembly's review of arts and culture could not fail to notice the strength of feeling in the arts community about its lack of a working relationship with the personnel and management of the council. The Arts Council as it is presently constituted, with its current structures and personnel, is not the sort of organisation that we need in this new political era. I understand the recommendations of the Wallace report, but I do not believe that merely changing the structures would be the answer. The problems go deeper than that. They relate to the people who currently run the Arts Council and its ethos and outlook. We have consulted our colleagues in Westminster who agree with our position that we need a new cultural agency in Wales. As First Secretary, will you commit yourself to a new cultural funding agency that can deliver on the Assembly's priorities as will be outlined within the Assembly's arts review, rebuild relationships with the arts community, many of whom view the current management with deep suspicion, and offer a less bureaucratic structure. The recommendations of the Wallace report, as confirmed by officials responding to concerns in the Post-16 Education and Training Committee will increase the administration costs of the Arts Council. That will not be accepted by the arts community, which wants to see more money spent in grants.

The First Secretary: I go along with a lot, but not all, of your questions or the commitments that you asked me to make. I am not at a stage today to say scrap the Arts Council and start all over again. I would not go that far. There is a common thread between the three developments to which I referred, namely the resignation of the chief executive, the Wallace report into greater openness, more emphasis on better management and better regional delivery mechanisms, and the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report into why people were so angry about the reawarding of the theatre for young people contract. Those three things undoubtedly manifest much unhappiness with the way that the Arts Council has been run, and a loss of faith by people in the artistic community. That is why a restructuring of the Arts Council is inevitable when you have a new chief executive and have accepted the terms of the Wallace report.

I am also considering the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report and its conclusions. It is probably fair to say that every time that the Arts Council makes a decision about the allocation of funds--because the arts by their nature are subjective--those that are not chosen to deliver a service are angry. They ask why you have awarded it to that body over there, because it does things in an old-fashioned way, or in a new-fashioned, trendy way, or whatever, and the body to which you award it, which was not awarded a contract five years earlier, is happy. You cannot satisfy the losers that you have made that award on an objective basis, because the arts by their nature--whether it be the Booker prize or the Nobel prize for literature, or whatever--involve a high degree of subjectivity in decision making. How do you decide these things? It is on a hunch in the end, because there is no real, mathematical formula; it is based on whether you like something better than something else. Therefore, in that area of subjectivity that is inherent in the arts, there will always be a degree of unhappiness, which is why I do not go quite as far as you in saying scrap the Arts Council and start all over again.

Christine Humphreys: I welcome the statement and the recognition of the contribution of the arts and culture to Welsh life. There is an acceptance in your report that structures need to be changed to reflect the needs of the arts in Wales, and to rebuild confidence in the arts in Wales. I particularly welcome the publication of the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report, which I believe is now in the public domain, and its criticism of the lack of consultation in the implementation of the theatre for young people strategy. The report confirms what many of us felt for a long time, that there was not proper consultation; indeed 21 of the 22 local authorities felt that they were not consulted properly.

The Pricewaterhouse Coopers report points out that the consultation carried out by the Arts Council did not ask basic, fundamental questions, such as what did young people want, what the views of the specialist theatre practitioners and teachers were, and--an essential question--what resources were available. We are becoming aware of the Arts Council's previous attitude, which was, at best, a mother knows best attitude, and, at worst, a cavalier attitude towards the people that they serve. I believe, as do many people, that it was this Assembly's review of the arts and culture that put in train the process of questioning and bringing a halt to some of the extreme actions of the Arts Council. This has wider implications than just for the Arts Council for Wales. Can you tell me what steps you have taken to ensure that not only the Arts Council for Wales but all other Assembly sponsored public bodies that have a responsibility to this Assembly and to the people of Wales enshrine this Assembly's commitment to openness and accountability, and undertake meaningful consultations with key players when fundamental decisions and changes have to be made?

The First Secretary: As with Jonathan's speech, I do not agree with some of the words that you used, such as 'cavalier' and 'extreme', but I know what you are talking about. Undoubtedly, there were strong feelings widespread in the artistic community, save for the problem that I mentioned in responding to Jonathan, that you will never make all the customers happy, because in the end you have to say that somebody is getting the contract, and somebody is not. That will give rise to screams of abuse. It does not matter if you are the archangel Gabriel making the dispositions as regards theatre for young people because you will still have people screaming blue murder that they, for some obscure reason, did not get the contract to which they felt they were entitled due to their right way of carrying out a particular cultural project.

In all other senses, I agree with what Christine said. It is about openness, transparency, regional delivery and carrying with you the artistic community and the wider public interested in arts, culture and their importance to the future of Wales. They are all important issues that have gone wrong over the past few years. We now have an opportunity, with the arts review, a new Chief Executive, the Wallace report and with digesting the consequences of the report into theatre for young people, to put it right.

Tom Middlehurst: I do not intend to be a jack-in-the-box Assembly Member, but many of this morning's issues have been of a direct interest to me.

Does Rhodri agree that we need to maintain the arm's length principle? Whether we have an arts council that goes by another name is another matter. It is easy this morning to take pot shots at the Arts Council for Wales. The Wallace report gives us that opportunity and the Pricewaterhouse Coopers report confirms the concerns expressed throughout Wales as regards the council's work. It is important, at this stage in the Arts Council's life, to draw a line under that, and recognise that, because of its significant personnel changes, we should send the council some positive messages today to show that we want to move forward on the basis of the Wallace and Pricewaterhouse Coopers reports and, more importantly, on the basis of the arts and culture review, which the Assembly will publish shortly. Due to the significant personnel changes, the fact that the Chair has only been in office for a short time and that we are about to appoint a new chief executive, we should give the council the opportunity to put its house in order.

The First Secretary: You are right, Tom. It is inevitably open season on the Arts Council for Wales this morning. I hope the council realises that this does not derive from hostility about its future potential to be able to lead, guide and resource the cultural industries of Wales so that we can be legitimately proud of them. It is probably fair to say that, post devolution, the cultural life of Wales is more important than it was before. Inevitably, we feel responsible for trying to ensure that it is as successful as possible, which applies to both subjects raised this morning. Our message is that we hope to see the Arts Council become very alive, strong and able to communicate in an open and transparent way with all the different aspects of culture in Wales and all parts of the country.

Cynog Dafis: I support Tom Middlehurst's comments about looking carefully at what will be said about the arts and culture in the Post-16 Education and Training Committee's report. I cannot foresee the contents of that report.

I feel strongly that the work of reforming the Arts Council for Wales should not be left entirely to the council itself. Supervision and external assistance will be required to ensure that the council can carry out the important revisions ahead.

There is no reason to believe that a regionalized, devolved pattern would cost more than the present system. Money could be saved if regions were to deal with small applications. That would release whatever our central body will be to take a strategic view of the situation and to be responsible for funding national organisations.

Regionalization means that we must consider what is appropriate for it. Our attention has been drawn to literature already. However, it would not be appropriate to regionalize responsibility for supporting authors, unless that the authors in question were particularly local. Literature, therefore, is one field where responsibility must remain central.

The First Secretary: Thank you for those supportive words. We look forward keenly to the report by the Committee that Cynog chairs. Perhaps we will be able to take a number of steps forward after hearing the contents of the report.

As regards the regionalised aspect, Richard Wallace was formally the chief financial official of the old Welsh Office. I am not sure whether he worked for us during the period of the Assembly itself. Undoubtedly he would have taken a detailed view of the financial aspect and therefore on whether there would be an additional cost if services were broken down to the regionalised level.

It is important that we try to move forward and get away from the squabbling. It is not appropriate to try and split the cultural world of Wales between the different political parties. It is not a political matter in that sense. We are all in favour of seeing a much more sumptuous and flourishing life in the cultural world because it would be of benefit to us all in Wales, and also bring credit to the Assembly.


original source: National Assembly for Wales
12 October 2000


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