Theatre in Wales

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

It's time to take a new look at Wales

The arts in wales look to the National Assembly for co-ordinated policy making, says Janek Alexander

The campaign for the Assembly, undeclared, has already begun. In the coming months the arts have a message for every Assembly candidate and would-be candidate. Forget the establishment ideas about the arts and culture. It is time to take a new look at Wales. The arts celebrate our society and contribute to our own sense of national identity and - as importantly - to the world’s perception of Wales. The arts bring jobs, training, innovation and new ideas into society. They assist with community enterprise and development. Money invested in the arts is spent in the local economy primarily on local suppliers - in contrast to many of the large industrial concerns which have moved to Wales with public investment but where very little work has gone to local suppliers. The arts are also an industry that is here to stay - and culture as an industry is something relatively unaffected by swings in the stock exchanges of the Far East or Wall Street.

With two languages Wales is uniquely placed within the UK to serve the vast international market for English language cultural product while being aware and sensitive to the needs of countries where English is not the only language of cultural expression. The distance from Whitehall to Wales has meant that it has been hard in the past to persuade government of the importance of culture in Wales. The argument with the Assembly will be easier in future as the new role of the arts is understood. Much to celebrate It is said that those of us working in the arts and cultural industries are doomed to be optimistic. Our trade is drumming up excitement and in truth there is much to be optimistic about. Where professionals, politicians and critics are rightly pessimistic it is about matters which, in the end, are solvable.

As the millennium approaches we have in Wales a cultural scene that is more diverse, more open, more representational of Welsh contemporary life than ever. Over the past twenty years an unprecedented situation has arisen with the creation of a network of galleries, theatres and arts centres of Wales which spans the country.

Community initiatives, far-sighted local authorities and ever more confident universities have each contributed. In rural and metropolitan Wales, in University town and South Wales Valley, in Welsh-speaking Wales and the borders our communities now have access to cultural experiences which were unobtainable and unattainable only a generation ago. All this has taken place during a period of enormous economic change in Welsh society. Against this background the role of arts facilities has also changed and broadened. Buildings that were principally seen as leisure centres for the new consumer society now have a wider remit and purpose.

In an increasingly private society - where for many the workplace and church are no longer the focal point of public life - the theatres, arts centres and galleries have a powerful, understated role as public spaces. Where else do schools, young adults, the retired, the professional, tourists, local families meet and congregate to engage with new ideas and celebrate our society? The arts offer new work opportunities, social amenities, opening people’s minds to their heritage as well as new experiences and new horizons. The arts are one of the key places in which the Welsh language is manifest in all its richness

Not all venues are the same - but then not all communities are the same. Arts Factory in the Rhondda, Chapter in Cardiff or Aberystwyth Arts Centre each has a different profile but each has an equal commitment to its locality and to the people it serves. Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life now partake of the professional arts every week across the country. The doors of arts venues are open to all

Finances of the Arts
The finances of the arts are often a high-wire act: if you look pessimistically down rather than focusing optimistically ahead you are liable to fall. Wales presents a confused picture. The public are still the greatest single source of cash for the arts - ticket sales, art purchases and so on. For theatre managers it’s one of the nicest parts of the job: people walk in and give us money! Across the country local authority re-organisation has created a crisis in arts finances - particularly where organisations, such as Clwyd Theatr Cymru in the North or the Sherman Theatre in the South have a regional role which falls outside local authority boundaries. The resources available to the Arts Council of Wales have increased spectacularly with the advent of the Lottery yet the cry has also gone up throughout Wales that there is "not enough money". What is going on?

"Joined-up government"
Culture Secretary Chris Smith recently introduced a study of the cultural industries in the UK as an example of "joined-up government". The arts in Wales are certainly crying out for "joined-up" policy making and look to the Assembly to provide it. Artists and arts managers have for the past ten years been decrying the way policy in Wales is made by separate bodies serving separate agendas. Production, exhibition, touring, marketing, tourism, economic development are each handled by different departments or bodies.

We have faced the absurd situation of theatre productions with no venues and venues with no theatre productions. New buildings have been funded with little or no thought as to how they will be staffed and where the money will come from. The Arts Council’s own reorganisation has maintained the split between production, presentation and Lottery-funded activity with little external sign that these divisions consult. Cultural tourism is a growth area in Europe yet contact between the Arts Council and the Tourist Board appears minimal. Most of our public bodies have undergone modernisation in recent years. The blame for many of the difficulties with the system has been laid at the door of reorganisation. As the purpose of reorganisation was to make the organisations more effective we can only say "get over it and get on with it".

The problems we are tackling in Wales are not new and have been identified in study after study. In both Tourism and the Arts there seems to be a mismatch between the experience of operators on the ground and the ability of policy makers to deliver effective national strategies. Why is nothing done?

The Lottery has doubled the money which is available to be spent on the arts in Wales. The Arts Council of Wales seems to be in a contradictory position. Its treasury money has fallen in value and is no longer sufficient to fund the infrastructure. It is a distributor of Lottery money but is unwilling to prioritise Lottery funding to achieve a sustainable life for our culture in Wales.

Local authorities play an enormous role in the arts yet relations between the Arts Council and the authorities across Wales has reached such a low point in recent years that the Arts Council has just relaunched its efforts to achieve a "compact" with the authorities. Similarly the Arts Council has consulted on a new strategic plan. Such efforts may be too late.

Going around Wales I meet politicians who are clear that only the Assembly can put in place the "joined-up government" that we had until now assumed it was the role of our public bodies to provide. It is said that even at the Welsh Office there has been bafflement at why the Arts Council should be establishing a new strategic plan so close to the advent of the Assembly.

In 1996 the Welsh venues met with the Arts Council’s then Chief Executive Emyr Jenkins and the future Chief Executive Jo Weston. They asked us what we looked to them for. "Transparency" was the unanimous reply. The Arts Council has this autumn, for the first time, admitted the public to one half of one of its meetings in Cwmbran. It is a pity things had to move so slowly. This year the Arts Council again asked us what we sought. "Partnership" was the reply. There is a desire for partnership from across the arts sectors. Wales is a small country and, as with so many other areas of our lives, too small to perpetuate petty divisions and infighting.

A new agenda for Wales - Transparency and Partnership
The Assembly is now only months away. The Assembly will be concerned for the cultural life of Wales and the dynamic the arts and cultural industries can bring to the future economy. As our new Secretary of State Alun Michael considers the last pre-Assembly Welsh Office spending review we trust that the spending plans proposed now - both treasury funds and lottery funds - will sustain the arts and cultural infrastructure of Wales in a sufficiently robust state that they can rise to the challenge of the new agenda for Wales to be set by the Assembly following next May.

But money is not the be all and end all. Equally important is a new approach to public policy. Without transparency and partnership we cannot deliver the excitement, the quality, the diversity, the access to innovation and excellence that we all want for Wales.

The Presenting The Arts Group is the professional association of arts centres and venues in Wales. Incorporated in 1994 PAG is a partnership between venues from all over Wales. In that partnership it brings together institutions from the Universities, Local Authorities and the independent voluntary sector. PAG’s aim is to raise the standards of the arts in Wales, promote diversity and provide communities across Wales with arts and entertainment. PAG members promote theatre, music, film, dance, visual arts, literature and craft.

author:Janek Alexander

original source: Presenting The Arts Group
01 November 1998


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