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Scoping Study: Policy Review of Anglo-Welsh CultureL: Presentation paper: Janek Alexander (Director - Chapter Arts Centre)     

What is Chapter?
Chapter is dedicated to developing contemporary culture, nurturing new talent and providing public access to the arts.
The centre, an educational charity located in Cardiff, opened to the public in 1971; it specialises in contemporary culture including cinema, visual arts, digital arts and performing arts. Chapter provides a platform for existing work as well as commissioning and producing new work.
Anglo-Welsh Culture
Chapter promotes Anglo-Welsh culture alongside work in the Welsh language, English language work from outside Wales and foreign language work from around the world. (It should be noted that a significant minority of artists now work bilingually).
For this paper we have limited our submission to drama, film and literature - Anglo-Welsh Culture also manifests itself through other artforms.

Examples of current Anglo-Welsh work being developed with Chapter support, advice or facilities:

Ø Artist Bethan Huws: her English language film Ion On was produced in association with Chapter and has its premiere this month prior to its exhibition at the Wales Pavilion, Venice Biennale of Art 2003.

Ø Volcano Theatre Company are based in Swansea and have a close relationship with Chapter; they are one of Wales most successful exports and they create radical interpretations of drama classics as well as commissioning original texts.

Ø Theatre Company Sgript Cymru are based at Chapter (details of their work are presented elsewhere to the Culture Committee). They rehearse, hold workshops, perform, produce and have their offices at the centre.

Ø Director Mike Pearson is based in Aberystwyth and Cardiff; his original theatre production Polis, commissioned by Chapter, was a radical exploration of Cardiff which mixed narrative drama with audience participation; Chapter is working with Pearson and others to develop new productions for Cardiff 2008.

Ø Drama writers Roger Williams and Ed Thomas are developing new theatre productions with Chapter. Ed Thomas is also director of Fiction Factory, an independent film and television company based at Chapter. Fiction Factory's detective drama Mind To Kill has been sold to 80 countries; their latest project is Dal Yma Nawr - 2000 Years of Welsh Poetry commissioned by S4C. A new edition of Ed Thomas' plays was published last year and his work continues to be performed around the world: the National Theatre of Bogota will produce a Spanish language version of his play Gas Station Angel later this year.

Ø Other film-makers based at Chapter include Oscar-nominated Joanna Quinn, CF1 Cyf (whose film comedy Plots With A View - starring Christopher Walken, Alfred Molina and others - is set in Wales), animation group Cinetig who specialise in collaborative projects with young people across South Wales.

Ø Chapter exhibits local film, including short films by young filmmakers, as well as celebrating our moving image heritage - for example, a weekend in tribute to actor/documentary film-maker Kenneth Griffith on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2001. In 2002 Chapter celebrated director Marc Evans whose film adaptation of Ed Thomas' valleys tragedy House of America began a career that has taken him to national success with the horror film My Little Eye (released this month on DVD). Director Christopher Monger began his career at Chapter (which he describes as "my film school") before directing films such as the Hugh Grant romantic comedy The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill and the forthcoming Dylan Thomas film The Map of Love.

Ø Chapter supports critical debate and new writing in English through seasons and monthly presentations. Speakeasy is an annual season of public interviews with Anglo-Welsh writers hosted by writer and journalist Jon Gower. First Thursday is a monthly public meeting and performance platform for Anglo-Welsh poetry. 2nd Wednesday is a monthly forum for interdisciplinary artists. Ellipsis is a monthly evening of prose and poetry. Experimentica is an annual platform of young artists working in new media and performance art; artists selected from the showcase are invited to festivals in Europe through Chapter's networking with other European cultural centres.

This is a brief introduction to some of the artists with which Chapter works. A scoping study will look wider and should for example look at storytelling and the festivals organised by St Donats Arts Centre, it should hear from the Welsh Music Foundation about how the pop music scene has developed and the challenges facing us if we wish to bring the benefits of that success into Wales, it should consider the policy initiatives which have sought to develop the cultural infrastructure in the South Wales Valleys.


The marketplace for ideas

Chapter can be summed up in one sense as the national centre for the contemporary arts, but it is important to understand how Chapter differs from the majority of arts centres.

Chapter works as a marketplace, a cultural quarter: a place where many artforms are developed together and there is an interchange between cultures and people. That multidisciplinary, inclusive approach does not easily fit into lists nor analysis by category.
In their book The Independents (Demos 1999, ISBN 1 898309 96 5) Charles Leadbeater and Kate Oakley investigated what factors could explain the creative "hot spots" that exist in the UK. One crucial success element they identified was the central role of cultural intermediaries in developing new talent; in their study of various cities in the UK they concluded "Chapter is an outstanding example of how a cultural business incubator should work."

Supporting Anglo-Welsh Culture

While the Anglo-Welsh artists we are describing here are part of a multi-million pound success story two related points have to be made. Firstly that culture in Wales is not an industry per se - its characteristics are too varied - but it does exist within a hard commercial environment. It can be a very hard environment.

Television company Teliesyn - with a long history of highly regarded productions such as Cracking Up with Gwyn Alf Williams for Channel Four - were based at Chapter until they closed in 2002. In a thoughtful analysis of the difficulties they faced in continuing to create work in Wales (Planet magazine February 2003) Colin Thomas writes that with the advent of multichannel television "established broadcasters became increasingly concerned about their viewing figures and consequently cared more and more about the anticipated audience appeal of a programme idea and less and less about whether it was challenging and innovative." The policies of HTV, S4C, C4 and the BBC impact on the fate of culture in Wales.

Secondly, outside the commercial environment artists still need support and still need to be paid. Where the marketplace fails the intervention of subsidy is necessary. As a proportion of costs the subsidy available from public bodies in Wales has declined over the past decade or more. The Minister's 23% increase in Arts Council of Wales funding for 2002/2003 is welcome - 15% was passed on to most arts organisations including Chapter - but that does not correct years of deliberately low funding.

The establishment of Sgrîn has been a very positive development, yet it does not have the resources of the Film Council or the British Film Institute and cannot match the funds the latter organisation invests in London's National Film Theatre or Film Festival.

The long decline in funding is reflected in the otherwise odd fact that the key artistic figures in Wales are predominately in their forties and fifties. The early part of their career development coincided with a better financial environment for the independent arts; their talent was recognised by institutions like Chapter which had commissioning funds through most of the eighties; they were supported and have been able to make - and continue to make - a significant contribution to our national culture.

The new generation of the past decade has been less fortunate and that has been a tragedy for Wales. Just as the economic focal point of the Welsh music phenomenon - Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, Catatonia - lies outside Wales so the younger generation of artists in their twenties and thirties have struggled or in some cases left the country. England or Scotland - or the cultural capitals of the EU - are a better financial location to be an artist. Helping artists best exploit those opportunities is part of Chapter's work and Chapter maintains active contacts with institutions and networks across Europe for that purpose, co-producing and co-operating on international projects.

There is of course no border with England and we as arts producers compete in one marketplace for artists, staff, critical attention, recognition. While Chapter's annual income has risen, grants have in many cases declined or failed to keep pace with inflation. The differential with England is now such that Arts Council England revenue grants for peer organisations over the border are up to 77% greater than in Wales.

Chapter's success in raising trading income and economic development grants for the charity has in the past decade papered over many of the cracks in the existing support structure. That cannot disguise significant failures such as, for example, new media and digital arts where we have stimulated activity and critical debate, where the initiative and interest exists - and a whole new generation of young talent are emerging from higher education equipped with the skills and the ambition - but where the resources and policies are wholly inadequate and Wales has not kept pace with UK or international developments.


Summary

The reason we have a strong talent base in Wales is because our communities benefit from passionate, talented artists who are enterprising and committed to culture within Wales. These artists have developed their art, assisted in many cases by Chapter, have sought work abroad, developed careers alongside broadcasting, found new markets.

The provision of Anglo-Welsh drama has declined to dangerously low levels and Wales has failed to respond with sufficient alacrity to new cultural developments and opportunities such as are offered by the digital revolution. The principle reason for this situation is the overall weakness of the supporting infrastructure linked to a previous failure of public policy and a lack of public resources for the arts which has yet to be fully corrected in Wales.

Public agencies cannot be expected to respond quickly to innovation, which is where independent agencies such as Chapter are so important. Organisations like Chapter ensure that the nation responds to new voices and enable our communities to take advantage of new cultural opportunities as they arise.

Janek Alexander, Director
Chapter, Market Rd, Cardiff CF5 1QE
3 March, 2003
wales assembly government  
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Janek Alexander
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Saturday, March 08, 2003back

 

 

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