Theatre in Wales

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

Public Arts Policy & Categorical Error

Warwick Commission on, Public Financing of the Arts

When I arrived in Lampeter I was friendly with a young scholar from Kampala at the then Saint David's University. The topic of his research was an aspect of the political press of Britain in the nineteenth century. His access to primary sources required trips to the national newspaper archive in Colindale in north London, a high cost for a student on a low stipend. Locally some newspapers could be read on microfiche, their text in smudgy outline requiring much fiddly handwork with a lens and a bright light. Within a few years the microfiche was as antique as a Babylonian stele. Within a few years more Information Overload Syndrome was categorised, in the USA, as a medical condition.

The information flow is now measured by the Zettabyte, a number that comes with 21 zeroes. So within the deluge a report “Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth” came my way. It comprises a paltry 426 kilobytes, was published in 2015 and has sat in a “Read This” folder for four years. A click on the “delete” button would be the easier path by far but it is a document of some weight. It is worth the remembering and the reading because it has been influential. It has flowed deeply into the thinking that influences arts policy. It is cited in the policy statements of Wales, where, as elsewhere, its assumptions have gone unexamined. It has assumed stature akin to history's first prescribed code, that of Hammurabi pictured.

Its influences can be seen in the statement this month put out by Arts Council England that its managers now deem excellence in the arts to be inadequate. All organisations that elevate secondary objectives over their first aims decline in effectiveness.

The Arts Council of England will be raising the costs of compliance and regulation. This will have the same effect as in other sectors, like banking and technology. It favours the big and the entrenched, because they have the resources to deal with higher compliance costs. It winnows out the challengers and the start-ups because they do not. Thus we will see the Council simultaneously raising the fixed costs of making art and thinning the ecology. And all for the highest of reasons.

“ACW is essentially an enabling body”, was how a policy statement correctly worded it. “The fulfilment of the aims and aspirations ...achieved by a two-way process between ACW funding partners and those artists and arts organisations which make and present the arts.” That was published in the last century, 17th June 1999. It has not just a modesty to it but a realism worth the emulation two decades on.

Bad thinking is rooted in categorisation that is false. There is nothing remotely new in this. We are hard-wired to dichotomise. False dichotomies are essential to identity. Councils that are capital rationing and allocation bodies disperse their energies on strategising. The results are far more emphatic on what they dislike than what they like. Real-world connection with week-on-week decision-making is small.

The principal categorical error is the belief that “the Arts” are circumscribed and indeed defined by the monies that councils disburse. In fact the publicly funded budgets are less than 1% of the total spent on culture. Underneath is the assumption that subsidised art is of a nature distinct from art produced by the market. In fact the two are richly symbiotic. Owen Teale in Terry Hands' “Macbeth” is on record as the greatest in a generation. That was the view of John Peter, the most authoritative critic of the classics. Teale as Alliser Thorne has been seen by a few more people but the two are connected. Steven Meo was a wildly original Petruchio in 2011, also under the directorial hands of Hands. He made us laugh in “High Hopes” and the two are connected. As evidence of connection Robert Blythe took the paterfamilias role in both.

None of this is new. Wales had a witness in Raymond Williams forty years ago. Williams was not inclined to mince his words. Culture in the public sector extended far beyond the remit of the Arts Council. “It is the incompetent political and administrative reflection of confused definitions”, was his view from the perspective of a participant. In particular, he observed the bias against any debate, consensus being the guiding value. This was realised in the appointment of men, of a good age, who were guaranteed to be safe. “The consequent muddle through its consensual tone”, growled Williams, “has led to repeated attempts to accept the muddle, to take it as something that has to be lived with.”

The evidence of the symbiosis of public-private art is to be seen. I was in a theatre in January, an occasion of manifest joy, in which half the audience was made up of Windrush generation grandparents, their children and their grandchildren. The production was commercially financed and originally presented on a subsidised stage.

In February I was in a theatre stuffed with the under-thirties. They were there to see- and to love- a show about teenagers from a range of ethnicities and faiths, estranged fathers, cross-dressing, school bullies. The production was commercially financed and originally presented on a subsidised stage.

A second deficiency befuddles public thinking on the arts. It is assertion about audience and its composition.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
18 April 2019


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