Theatre in Wales

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

Quality Document with Depth

Ecology & Quality in Arts Council of Wales Document

Ceredigion pre-empted other counties in the closure of its public facilities. On March 20th I was in one of its libraries a couple of hours before its due lock-up. Appropriately the last book I took with me for a long while was titled “the Science of Storytelling.”

I asked the librarian if there were a garden that might need attending.

“I hate gardening.”

“What do you think you will do?” I asked.

“There are always cupboards to clear out.”

Indeed there are always cupboards to be cleared. There are non-material cupboards too. My Downloads folder is not full but next to those from Apache and Mozilla is an Arts Council of Wales PDF. It is called “Strive to Excel”. It is not over-weighty, 3100 words in length.

It is a document, and a policy framework, that I like.

Its first virtue, and one that over-rides, is that its language is crisp. Tautness of language is not, in itself, a sufficient condition for good thinking but it is a necessary one. But good thinking is a necessary condition for robust policy-making.

Its first line reads: “Quality is an elusive and contested concept. The arts change and develop, and so too does the consensus of what is ‘good’ or of quality.”

That is true but in part. Most works of art work within a genre. Critical language is generative and can make its assessment. Good critics operate, as has been written before, on four levels. There have been in theatre examples of getting it wrong, then accompanied by later fulsome critical mea culpas. But path-makers like“Waiting for Godot”, “the Homecoming” and “Blasted” are infrequent. Every piece is new unto itself and each is a fresh variation within convention.

The universe operates on randomness within variation. No creator, however exalted, can be author of unbroken perfection. Sometimes things do not fly and it is inevitable. Steve Marmion, a director who is well seasoned, wrote in his own book on theatre “more often than not, reviewers are right.”

The anonymous authors at the Arts Council get to the nub of what it's all for. It is not an adjunct to other activities of government; thus the arms-length structure.

No potential participant switches from pub or video game or box-set or sports club to be educated or elevated. The document takes a line from a review written by Brian Morton of Dennis Dutton's “The Art Instinct.”

“We take delight in virtuosity, we admire personal expression and novelty, we enjoy intellectual challenges that give pleasure in being mastered, and we benefit immeasurably from the sense of communion and intimacy these experiences bring us. This is art: then, now and always.”

“Strive to Excel” does not use the word “ecology.” The understanding of all phenomena is helped by applying an ecological filter. However, the ecological underlay is there. After a nod to creativity, vision and all that the Council writes:

“We’re also interested to look at how organisations engage with their public, and how this affects the creative choices that they make.”

Public is important. Public art in the public sector needs a public.

There is a producer interest in all activity and a consumer interest. This Arts Council is keen on the organisations it finances achieving validity outside its own walls:

“A confident and effective arts organisation will embrace the honest and rigorous self assessment of its work. It will actively elicit feedback and critical review, and use this intelligence to shape and inform future activity.”

This emphasis on ecological connection is repeated later on:

“Processes are in place to monitor, assess and review work; open to, and keen to receive, different types of feedback.”

The use of the word “keen” is revealing. Makers are high in ego-strength.

Intrinsic in the quality programme the Council requires of its beneficiaries:

“Positive responses from audiences, participants and customers...Activity which exceeds the expectations of audiences, participants or customers.”

The m-word even gets into a public document of Wales:

“Strong market for the organisation’s work...Evidence of the work or experience of the company being sought after.”

Postscript: the document cited appears to date from 2009. A later document, where the title is similar if not the same, seems to have shed some sense and forthrightness.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
25 March 2020


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