Theatre in Wales

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

If Not Now, When?

This article questions the continued lack of a cultural vision at the heart of public subsidy of the arts in Wales, and invites the members of the new

In the June issue of Planet the magazine's Editor printed a letter by Peter Lord to the Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales inviting the institution to reconsider its removal of Brith Gof's grant. The letter was accompanied by an update that reported that the Arts Council of Wales had decided to reverse its decision after a formal appeal by the company - and after receiving numerous letters similar in tone to Peter Lord's - and that this year they will be assessing the standard of our work with a view to granting or removing our subsidy next year.

This is, indeed, a strange and impossible environment within which to p roduce professional creative work...

But behind Brith Gof's predicament, there are bigger issues.

At the same time as this muddled, "stop/start/maybe stop again" operation has been taking place, a much greater event has occurred: we, the people of Wales, have voted to take responsibility for some components of our own destiny. We will have, for the first time for centuries, a democratically elected body in Wales, specifically charged with developing a Welsh political agenda - the new Assembly.

In preparation for that Assembly every institution in Wales seems to have been organising meetings, discussions and seminars in order to produce documents that will serve to inform or to channel the thinking of its members.

Understandably, the arts have been one of the subjects discussed, and I was invited to one such session organised by the Institute of Welsh Affairs. Inevitably the administration of central government funding to the arts was discussed and, by and large, the Arts Council of Wales did not come off well in the papers produced for these meetings, nor in the discussions that took place. Indeed, serious questions were raised about the credibility of the organisation and its modes of operation. At other similar discussions, one gets the impression that similar doubts are being raised. One discussion paper prepared by a respected member of the Welsh arts world for one of the events, states after lengthy analysis, "... it is my dear conclusion that the Council has poorly discharged its responsibilities over all of the last eleven years or so".

I have to say that I agree with this analysis but, until these more public discussions had revealed to me similar feelings amongst others in the cultural field, I had assumed that Brith Gof's relationship with the Arts Council was a unique one. It now appears that this is not the case, and indeed many cultural organisations will, when pressed and in private, tell similar horror stories of the dysfunctional state of the organisation. Now, these issues are never aired publicly - for fear of reprisals, I would guess (for it is well nigh impossible for any artist to work in Wales without the financial support of the Arts CounciT of Wales), and so the structural problems remain at the level of anecdote and private conversation. Usually, these anecdotes blame particular Officers of the organisation or particular Committee members, but a public debate needs to be generated and moved beyond the personalities in order to examine the underlying causes of what I can only regard as a crisis. At the risk of never receiving another grant from the Arts Council of Wales, here are my thoughts:

In agreeing that "the Council has poorly discharged its responsi- bilities 'the key decision I find myself having to make is whether this has happened because

One - it has been put under impossible political pressure by the Thatcherite "market"-led project, and now the Blairite "people"-led project (and if those pressures were removed things would get better);

Two - it is the fault of the particular individuals who constitute the Council and its Officers at this time (and if they were replaced things would improve);

Three - there is something deep in the DNA of the body that prevents it - whoever is in charge - from doing a reasonable job (and that the problem is structural/conceptual).

The Impossibility of Protection
Perhaps I should begin by explaining my clumsy DNA metaphor.
I believe that there is, at the heart of the Arts Council of Wales's conceptual system, a set of incredibly stupid and unrealistic ideas, that probably have a lineage going back to the Second World War, and even to the organisations of lunchtime classical music concerts in the wartime Tate Gallery! It might be fascinating to retrace the roots of some of these "art is good for you" notions, but....
Ironically we, the artists in Wales, who are at least one of the avowed purposes for the Arts Council of Wales's existence, are served extremely badly by these "preservationist" ideas, and if we tum our attention to just one of the central attitudes about us and our work - i.e. that art is special but fragile (rather like a species threatened by an inhospitable environment) we can reveal a line of thinking that leaves us in the lurch - and strangely infantilised. Tho thinking goes some- thing like this:
Art is special but "fragile" - so it needs to be treated differently to everything else and protected. Therefore we must "ring fence" its existence, its finances and, of course, its nature, which is defined according to a number of what are, in fact, nothing more than old-fashioned artistic tediniques - visual art, drama, literature, music and so on. (Where are the young Welsh bands, where are the mixes of media that artists regularly use, where is TV?)
Like the "Red Indians" of old, we must put art and the artists in a reservation - to protect them and to guarantee their existence. Sensible? Well, to us inside the fence, a few things become clear very early:

One - we are poor. There is not enough food for us all and we are extremely dependent on the dates of delivery of that food, and will, in a most undignified manner, be made to jump through endless hoops to get it.

Two - the reservation model seeks to suggest that we are all the same, that we all agree, that we support each other's existence, and that we are parts of a greater system (subsidised theatre companies perform in subsidised theatres, don't they?). But, actually, other artists are our closest competitors for food, and we might not agree with the programming policies of those charged with the exhibition of our work, and the exhibitors might not agree with our production aesthetics or methods - why should they?

Three - artists are inside the fence and administrators are outside. (My guess is that it is more possible to make a career in Wales in the adinistration of the arts or the teaching of the arts than it is in the practice of the arts. Iwonder why this is so? Are there more good administrators and educators than artists in Wales?) In any case, in the "reservation" the artist is infantilised - the naive but powerless "genius or exotic

Four - we have to interface with the real world when we show our work - and that involves leaving the reservation. When we leave the reservation, the gatekeepers (ACW) get nervous. When we leave the reservation and learn the ways of "the white man" and begin to succeed in his terms then the gatekeepers get extremely nervous (because they don't understand how we do it, don't define it as art, and want it to be kept separate from our subsidised work in the reservation).

Now, this thinking is Kafkaesque in its abilitv to create double binds from its basic belief system or basic paradigm for art - a belief system that portrays itself as existing to support the arts! it is no way to run a cultural industry. Artists and art have to live and work in the real world. We are much more sturdy that the ACW would like to think. We are also capable of "producing the goods" in a wide range of commercial and cultural arenas. We can imagine new futures for our work, and can respond creatively to a proliferation of situations. But we need a clear, well-designed and adventurous cultural framework within which to create our projects, for we work at the service of a set of cultural ideas - not at the service of commerce - and when the national body charged with setting the vision for that culture fails in its remit, the cultural sector is atomised and left debilitated. And let us not forget that the group who subsidises the arts most in Wales is the artists themselves - who often have to work for a pittance, with absolutely no security of employment (every revenue artist funded by the Arts Council of Wales, in effect, has to reapply for his or her job annually) and a respect for their work that never translates into solid resources.

The Impossibility of Success
The Arts Council also operates, I believe, around a number of central "axes of anxiety", that constitute a set of binds within the system that mean that whoever is running the show, they will end up in an impossible situation. In this respect, I sympathise with the Officers and Committees. What do I mean by binds? I suppose I mean a coupling, along one axis, of an avowed intent or a belief, and the impossibility of achieving it. For instance:

One - The Arts Council believes that art and artists are a good thing, they are special but fragile and are in need of financial protection - but the Arts Council does not possess the funds to carry out this plan.

Two - The Arts Council possesses a unique power of patronage, all artists depend on them and their choices define Welsh art - but the Arts Council operates an arm's length policy.

Three - The Arts Council has no Cultural Policy or vision for the arts in Wales specifically - but the Arts Council has to make judgments and take decisions on how to spend public money in Wales on a daily basis.

If only these three axes (and there are many others) cross in the middle and the Arts Council Officers and Committee members have to operate in some meaningful way along these axes, then one of two things can happen. Either the impossibifity of the target you set lets you off the hook of achieving it, or you become uncriticisable in your efforts to do the best you can within the resources available to you.
It is also no surprise that although the Arts Council of Wales has very few ways of pro-actively saying "Yes", they have a proliferation of ways of saying "No" or worse, "Perhaps" (because they don't have the money or the necessary vision and the policies have to be made up "on the hoof").
The organisation's decisions are ad hoc, and the goal posts shift endlessly - before giving a grant, during the artist's spending of the grant, and in any process of "assessment" after the grant is spent (because they are based, not on policies but on personal judgments in a process that can only be called patronage).
A number of harder-edged factors, such as administrative imperatives, value for money, bums on seats, popularity, good or bad re-views, disability, "the people" - all apparently unchallengeable within any given political climate - move centre stage and hijack what should be a clear-headed cultural debate and a cultural decision.
Decisions are made on the basis of instinct ("I can't define good art but I'll recognise it when I see it"), as a result of the vested interest of a particular subgroup on the committee, on the basis of anecdote, against a backdrop that can only be called "the middle-class project" - i.e. "What would I like to have on my wall?", "What would I like to take my wife out to see?" and so on.
It is impossible to get any clear reason for a decision from the Arts Council of Wales (because no decision is made clearly - that is, against a publicly stated background of policies or strategies); and any Welsh company of cultural producers that seeks to devise a long-term plan for their operation (and in the real world they must) cannot rely on the Arts Council of Wales to match its seriousness and professionalism. Interfacing with the institution has, at times, felt like talking to "smoke and mirrors".

The Impossibility of Action
Over ten years ago, I was asked to write a discussion document for the Film and Video Committee of the Arts Council. This discussion document made a case for a Cultural Policy to be developed and adopted by that Department. I had been a member of the Film and Video Committee for some time, and had been having enormous difficulties understanding a number of things. Decisions were being made on the most anecdotal of information, criteria for those decisions were changing from client to client and sometimes from project to project by the same client. Most importantly, almost no applications were coming forward from Welsh-speaking groups, and those that were; were dismissed as worthless very early in the process of consideration. This led me to believe that there was a deeply held set of artistic and cultural standards that were being used by the Committee, that were entirely unvoiced, certainly not written down and were prejudicial to certain cultural groups in Wales.
Peter Lord and I, along with numerous other arts and cultural organisations, were based in the same centre in Aberystwyth at the time, and we and others spent long hours discussing the culture-specific nature of various art forms in the planning of programmes of work in the centre. Peter, who was a member of the Visual Arts Committee was suffering exactly the same problems as me and he was also invited to produce a document for his Committee. ln it, he tried to expose and challenge some of these hidden and unspoken agendas (this document was later published in his book, Gwenllian - Essays on Visual Culture).
Both documents made what I though to be an extremely reasonable argument for the creation and adoption of a Cultural Policy by both Departments. Since then, largely because of my work with Brith Gof over the past ten years, I am even more convinced of the need for such a statement of vision and/or policy and I would extend the notion even further. It was also enco uragingto hear other younger artists at the seminar I attended asking for cuftural frameworks for their work - perhaps the times really have changed and there is a genuine need for such matters to be discussed by all of us concerned with the cultural health of Wales.
For me, the use of the term "culture" rather than art opens up a range of structural possibilities and closes down a series of quite dead-end debates. Briefly, the notion of a Cultural Policy shifts the centre of gravity of our thinking in a number of ways:

One - it refers to Wales first and not to art - immediately placing cultural activity within a real social/historical/cultural context, and in touch with the people who live within that context.

Two - it conflates two terms very usefully - "culture" as cultural or artistic activities that engage artists and audiences, and "culture" as the nature of a people. If one is so inclined, it also invites one to entertain more contemporary notions of cultural studies, the construction of cultural identities and so on, and for them to be included in the debate.

Three - it allows us to think about culture as both an internal process (how we speak to each other) and as an external one (how we speak to others).

Four - it generates terms such as Cultural Industry, Cultural Production, Cultural Impoverishment, Cultural Development, Cultural Regeneration etc. - all of which can sit alongside other terms such as Economic Development, Economic Regeneration, and so on. This generates a parallel set of terms that can be placed alongside all of the other terms that the Assembly will use, and any Assembly for Wales that has a strategy for Economic Development, should surely have one for Cultural Development, shouldn't it?

Five - it allows us to think of cultural support in a less emotive or mystified way than the language that currently surrounds the subsidy for an artist or an artwork. The personalisation and fetishisation of arts subsidy means that it is characterised as an entirely different one from that handed out, for example, to farmers. But why should this be so? One of the key differences is surely that the broad political notion into which farmers fit is clear and stated - Feeding the Nation, Managing the Environment, etc. - while there is no similar broad strategy for the artist or for artistic production to sit within. (This is why the arts are often "orphaned" and "fostered" by other stronger cultural forces - Arts and Community, Arts and Education, Arts and Business etc.). But the development of notions of Cultural Initiative, Cultural Export, and Cultural Industry would place cultural subsidy in an exactly similar political position to agricultural subsidy - involving both commercial and "quality of life" issues.

Six - it demands that we bring together, under one heading, a range of activities which are all currently quite separate - radio, television, multimedia, architecture, the Welsh band scene, the arts, crafts, and so on - and to consider them all under the umbrella of a Welsh cultural portfolio. I suggest this not so that funding mechanisms are brought together, but that cultural programmes are co-ordinated at some simple level for the benefit of Wales. The images and materials that this cultural portfolio generates seems to me to be the kind of stuff that could immediately stand for Wales and its identity as a bilingual, contemporary small nation in Europe, and as such needs to be "managed" in a creative and entrepreneurial manner by somebody - a Minister for Culture.

Seven - it allows us to design a Cultural Identity that is quite discrete from that of others - and this could be a major selling point for Wales abroad. Culturally, Wales is surely one of the richest nations in these islands - with a specific and unique historical and cultural backdrop, much of it created through our own Welsh language - but we currently don't mobilise it in any meaningful or co-ordinated way.

In other words, I believe that a Cultural Policy must be devised politically at the level of the Assembly and that this Policy should lead to a set of visions, directions, imperatives or parameters for the Arts Council of Wales to respond to (if the institution must exist - and I think this is a real question that a new Assembly will need to address). These should interlock with all of the Assembly's other strategies - economic, inward investment, transport, and so on.
Basically, the artist - or, if you prefer, the cultural producer - within the framework of a Welsh Assembly-devised Cultural Policy, would be creating the content, the materials, the specific products that support, enrich and manifest that strategy. It places the horse before the cart in ways that I am certain the citizens of Wales would understand and support.
If I have persuaded the reader of the advantages of a Cultural Policy, the question remains, "Is the Arts Council of Wales the best body to devise it, to develop it and to put it into effect?"

The Impossibility of Doing Nothing
Without a cultural vision, the organisation has been rudderless; and operating according to a well-meaning but outdated set of notions about "the arts" leaves a gap at the centre of its project that anybody could drive a bus through.
And the artist drops out through the hole left in the middle.
And the public doesn't trust a thing any of us say.
And it is the Arts Council of Wales, as it is currently constituted, that is responsible for this shambles. And we need to replace its Victorian "good works" ethos with a clearer and more public address to Cultural Developments for Wales

As the discussions already held around Wales have proven, any group of reasonably intelligent people will come to similar conclusions about these basic building blocks for a cultural programme. Ironically, the only body that finds it difficult is the Arts Council of Wales - which has, apparently, decided to be little more than an administrative functionary of central government.
I believe that we in Wales deserve something better.
I believe that the artists and entrepreneurs of Wales (the cultural producers) and the members of the new Welsh Assembly (our elected representatives) between them, will be better placed to tackle that process of cultural reformatting, and will certainly have more imagi- nation to be able to devise new patterns of cultural development, as well as the political will to push them through.
And to all those who say that it's not possible for us in Wales to address these issues, to rethink the basis on which we seek to develop our cultural life, I ask a very simple question as we look forward to the establishment of a new Welsh Assembly:

"If not now, when?"

author:Cliff Mc Lucas

original source: Planet #131 October/November 1998
01 October 1998


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