Theatre in Wales

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“WORLD CLASS WALES?”     

Why the question mark? I ask myself. Is the Arts Council shy about making the assertion?
The conference brochure tells us that this will be an exploration of “the international dimensions of the Arts in Wales – our performance on the global stage and how we measure up against international standards.” I’m pretty sure that, in the course of the conference it became clear that there was overwhelming agreement that much of the art produced in Wales is well up there with the best in the rest of the world.

Chairman of The Arts Council of Wales Geraint Talfan Davies and Chief Executive of the WMC Judith Isherwood gave delegates a very genuine warm welcome. Geraint Talfan Davies is a man with a great enthusiasm for the Arts and a good understanding of the ups and the downs of artists working in Wales. He expressed a need for the Arts to continually engage with the public and acknowledged the huge economic benefit the Arts industry was making to the success of the country.

Judith Isherwood standing centre stage in that great heart-stopping auditorium, The Donald Gordon Theatre spoke with well justified pride of the outstanding achievements of this great new World Class Art Centre since its opening. Most people with a passion for the Arts will share with Judith the heart lifting experience passing below the magnificent lettered facade that she still feels every time she enters the building. She told us that the opening of the building, in the presence of the Queen was the most exciting evening of her life.

She told us how it had been hailed as a world class venue by every visiting company from abroad, already establishing itself as a top-quality home for the Welsh National Opera who uniquely offer a range of seats for £5 at every one of their performances and now regularly play to capacity audiences in the 1900 seat theatre. The director of The Kirov ballet had claimed that the stage was the best in the world for dance. The Australian Ballet’s acclaimed production of Swan Lake also played to capacity and to standing ovations. Miss Saigon played to a near capacity audience. They had now achieved over 200,000 attendances. 10,000 guided tours had been undertaken, 250 free foyer performances had taken place. Here was World Class Wales.

Alun Pugh, Minister of Culture Welsh Language and Sport was certain that devolution had brought a significant boost to the Arts in Wales and to Arts funding. He welcomed the enriching contribution that the Arts are making to the lives of the people in Wales but also stressed that art must reach more poorer and excluded people throughout Wales and he acknowledged that the WAG had a real part to play in helping to make this happen. He curiously centred in on his decision to fund Clwyd Theatre Cymru’s splendid mobile theatre structure calling it a roaring success and declaring that this was an intervention for which he remained unapologetic. Nothing wrong with that, but it does highlight the danger of the WAG becoming hung up on the clients it funds itself and possibly seeing the other organisations as of lesser importance. We need the Minister to take clear steps to indicate that this will not be so.

The international aims of the conference were underpinned by the new prizes being offered for the Arts from Wales to the world, ‘Artes Mundi’ Wales International visual arts prize. First awarded in 2004, under the guidance of its Artistic Director, Tessa Jackson, it is fast becoming established as major biennial event for exciting and emerging artists throughout the world. The next Artes Mundi Exhibition will take place at the National Museum of Wales, February to May 2006. Eight artists will be shortlisted and a panel of five eminent judges will decide on the recipient of the £40,000 prize. The 2004 winner was Chinese born Xu Bing, a print maker and installation artist with a particular interest in how linguistic nuances can affect cultural differences. Alongside this visual arts prize the very latest, The Dylan Thomas Prize will reward writing in English by authors under the age of thirty from anywhere in the world. Catherine Zeta Jones, who will serve as the International Ambassador for the prize has declared that “This is a fantastic initiative and one which I am proud to be part of.” Along with a number of Wales based Fine Artists, Wales Performance Art has been strongly featured at The Venice Biennialle with Cardiff artists Marc Rees and Eddie Ladd taking many plaudits.

The Minister mentioned The Scottish wide-ranging Cultural Commission set up under the leadership of James Boyle. That commission headed its remit with the words, “Culture defines who we are. Our innate creativity is the most potent force for individual change and social vision.” The Minister shared that vision and indicated that Wales must develop its own Welsh Cultural strategy. He didn’t think a Welsh Boyle commission was appropriate for Wales. He didn’t mention that Boyle had indicated that a further £100m per year needed to be injected into culture in Scotland. This was a wary speech from a carefully prepared brief by a Minister trying to demonstrate a commitment to cultural development that left the audience somewhat underwhelmed.

The timely following of Alan Pugh by key-note speaker Neil Wallace magnificently allowed the now deep-booted spirits of conference delegates to fly high up to the great roof of the Donald Gordon Theatre. Neil Wallace, one time Cardiff based and involved in the setting up of the Chapter Arts, featured prominently in Glasgow’s successful bid for European City of Culture which resulted in the city putting £1m extra into its cultural budget. Now he is involved with the running of the Concertgebouw Haarlem in the Netherlands. He clearly had a good understanding of the strength and weakness of the cultural scene here in Wales. Most of those weaknesses seem to be institutional, most of those strengths in the great talents of the artists. We are still some way off real careers for artists working in Wales. He spoke of our ‘bonsai’ culture. Internationally respected but with much room for development with more skill, understanding, planning, pride and ownership of the Arts developed by the WAG.

He hoped by now that we had thrown off the yolk of being “A Defeated Nation.” We aren’t! Wales is a culture blessed by an ancient language. It must take strength from its scarred history. He hesitated over the question mark placed at the end of the title to the conference. Wales is world class. Although unlike The Netherlands where its cultural programme ensures that every disabled person has access to a prostitute, Wales is a great base of excellence in all art forms, its talent base must be sustained over the long term. He urged us not to fear our genius but to celebrate our roots, our excellence and prestige. This was a speech, making it very clear that Wales had so much, already that is great to offer to itself and to the world, sadly I think the Minister had left before Neil Wallace had finished.

Arts Chairman, Geraint Talfan Davies was clearly inspired, as we all were, by Neil Wallace’s wide-ranging and telling contribution. He again asserted for us the greatness of the WMC where he had experienced the cheering that had followed The Australian Ballet’s very innovative Swan Lake. He reminded us that the WMC did not stand alone, that there was an on-going movement to ensure a most comprehensive network of Art Centres throughout Wales. He cited the ‘Gate’ in Roath, Cardiff and the exciting Riverfront Centre in Newport. He had reservations concerning the possible erosion of the ‘arms-length’ principle and called for imaginative cultural planning for the Arts from the Assembly. He is clearly a man who cares about the Arts in Wales and in particular its artists and did in fact pay full tribute to all who practice in the Arts in Wales and seemed to think we were approaching a ‘win-win’ situation. Arts Council Chief Executive, Peter Tyndall was equally up-beat when he brought the conference to a close telling us about the increase in understanding that the Arts Council is beginning to bring to its clients. A simplified scheme and a quicker turnaround time for applications. He emphasised that quality monitoring would play a much more significant part in all future funding developments. He spoke of his aim for a National Art Gallery for Wales. He gave no indications of what might be in the English Language Theatre review that was now being undertaken. (A comprehensive National Theatre for Wales?) The outcome of this development will indicate whether or not the Arts Council has its finger on the pulse of artists working in Wales as much as they seem to feel that they do!

Well known poet and editor of Poetry Wales, Robert Minhinnick came at the end of each day to sum up on the workshops that had taken place but they were as much his own very personal reflections taking in the conference as a whole. This seemed at first to be a genuine cynical view, shared by many working and aspiring artists, that despite all that had been said the Arts Council remained an insensitive bureaucracy – a barrier to making progress in the Arts in Wales. After his first speech I shared some sympathy, at least with the theory of his view and some of its realities. A call for the Arts Council and the WAG to have a bit more humanity and a genuine enthusiasm for the Arts was a point well worth making and perhaps might make the bureaucrats think. But his closing speech was getting close to a rant that began to undermine the very serious notes that lay at the heart of his proposition.

The Workshops were largely deemed to be not a great success and were in fact extensions of the plenary sessions. There were three themes, repeated three times during the conference so that all delegates had the opportunities to be at each of the titles. Theme 1. “Transformation for the next decade.” 2. Wales and the World.” and 3. Engaging with the public.” These produced no substantial new thinking. Much well travelled ground was recovered and some very justified pleas from individual arts sectors were made. But very few people felt they had come away with any new knowledge or new angles on any thing, some questioned whether the workshops needed rethinking. I welcomed meeting artists from other art forms and found that potters and musicians and poets share the same frustration as we do in the theatre.

We were all able to unite at the generous reception given by the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, Councillor Freda Selway where the Capital’s poet, Gillian Clarke read three delightful and succinct poems and pleaded for a more romantic name for the WMC. To finish we all sat ’cabaret’ style on the great stage of the Donald Gordon Theatre and were able to gaze up at its lofty magnificence. We were there to celebrate 25 years of the Night Out Community, and the retirement of John Prior who had been the mainstay of the operation Touring Scheme. We enjoyed an evening of extracts, introduced, very tidy, by Frank Hennessy, from plays and other entertainments that had given pleasure throughout Wales in places where the Arts would not otherwise have gone. We had, as the evening was entitled “One Enchanted Evening.”

Guest speaker on the second day, now the RT Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, formerly Chris Smith the first Culture Secretary in the UK government, spoke with great confidence about the value of the Arts. He told us that we in Wales should be unafraid and unashamed and speak up with pride of the great work that goes on here, that Wales has a huge amount to offer to itself and to the world. He referred to the previously mentioned International prizes; to the 2012 Olympics. He felt this would not be just about sport but it would spawn a whole range of other activities and the Arts in Wales would benefit. I have never experienced a politician so up-beat on the Arts, he should write a book especially aimed at Prime Ministers, First Secretaries and Ministers of Culture, pointing out to them the real benefits of the Arts in social and economic terms. In it he would tell them to trust the artists. In Wales of course all the working artists have to win that trust. He told us a story of a time, in his role as Minister of Culture, he had breakfasted with Peter Brook and asked the great director, what would persuade him to come back to work in England? Brook replied that once a year he met with the French Minister of Culture, the Minister handed him a brown envelope with a cheque in it, then he heard no more from the Minister until the following year!

Smith is currently the Director of The Clore Leadership Programme, an initiative to help train and develop a new generation of leaders for the cultural sector in the UK. He stressed that leadership in the Arts needs to be as good, if not better than in a major PLC. Simon Harris, Artistic Director of Sgript Cymru is the latest recipient of a Clore Fellowship. Maybe at the end of his year he can come and talk to us about the empowerment he will have gained from it.

There were few practising artists in attendance. Only those artists who also played an administrative role in their work, along with other administrators made up the body of the conference. Whether or not they felt empowered by this 3rd Arts Council of Wales Conference only they will know. Clearly the Council wants to be more open and accessible and helpful to its clients. The conference is a good forum where this can happen. Next year will only be the fourth conference, it will be held in Aberystwyth. There was a some what superficial feed back form to return but maybe a wider consultation should take place to establish just how clients feel an Arts Council conference would be of the best benefit to them? This is a good start. Practising artists and the Council need to get closer together if only to protect the industry from even greater interference by the WAG.
 
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Michael Kelligan
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Tuesday, July 26, 2005back

 

 

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