Theatre in Wales

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The Arts Dividend : Why Investment in Culture Pays

Theatre History Book

Darren Henley , Elliott & Thompson Publishers , November-20-18
Theatre History Book by Darren Henley The issue of cultural policy, normally sedate, has been in the open this season with 9 substantive statements swirling around Guardian, Wales Arts Review and Nation Cymru. Arts Councils produce their documents but the opportunity to look behind the curtain is unusual. Darren Henley of the Arts Council of England in 2016 offered a crisp description, from a personal rather than an official perspective, of the place of the arts within the public domain.

It is a truism to say that the arts are various, in mode and form, scale and aspiration. Henley tackles a generally held dichotomy early on. “I don't understand the distinction some make between “great” and “popular” he writes. ”There are works of art that are ahead of their time, but few artists have striven not to be read, or to have their work leave people untouched. The greatest art is the most human. Given time, it will always reach its audience.” That is a bold statement. The theory is nice although there is no guide to arts managers over selection. To fund or not to fund is still the question.

Common words assume lethal meaning in discussion in the subsidised sector. “Accessible” has a pally ring to it. Lee Hall has written plays that have been seen by a lot of people. “Accessible”, says Hall, “is a lie perpetrated by those who want to sell us shit. Culture is something we share and we are all the poorer for anyone excluded from it.” Henley even kicks the word “subsidy” itself into the long grass. “But there's no subsidy. Personally, I cannot abide the term”, he says, “The Arts Council doesn't use public money to subsidise art and culture- it invests money for the benefit of all the public.”

But each work attracts its selective public. The important thing is that there be a rich ecology, more easily achieved in a large jurisdiction like England than the vastly smaller ones of Scotland or Wales. Quality surely ought to be a yardstick. But aesthetic judgement over contemporary arts is a semantic and conceptual quicksand in a territory where authority is uncertain. Commercial interests loom. A strand in higher education pitches in, high in reference and vocabulary beyond the layman. Haptic, anyone? Yet at times the smell of lobbying pervades.

Critics divide. Sometimes they indulge in a bout of collective breast-beating. The long-term valuation of “the Homecoming” was not that of the reaction at the time when it played Cardiff’s New Theatre. “We were all wrong” writes Michael Billington on page 355 of his authoritative book “State of the Nation.”

Artists ought to be predictable and they are not. In 2018 Martin McDonough is at the top of his game in film. His return to the stage, at the Bridge, has been met with critical loathing. In his book Henley visits the fifth Manchester International Festival. The credits for “wonder.land” are formidable: Damon Albarn, Moira Buffini, Rufus Norris. When it arrives six months later at the South Bank it gets a one-star critical pounding.

Henley cites Peter Bazalgette’s first speech as Arts Council Chair. “The arts create shared experiences that move us to laughter or to tears.” But sharing is a concept where the numbers are shrinking. Fin Kennedy has been charting the inexorable shift in England’s spending year on year away from theatre located in auditoria. The reasons are several, aesthetic fashion among them. Innovative form in one viewer’s eye is gimmickry in another. But formal novelty has a trend to drive down spectator numbers. The audience size which now gets to see Punchdrunk has fallen, the prices have soared while the critical enthusiasm has sagged.

Henley in his book travels widely both geographically and historically. He is enthusiastic about Manchester. The city under the regime of Leese and Bernstein has a sterling reputation for its quality of governance. He does not visit the West Midlands where the same does not apply. Birmingham Repertory Theatre has the greatest historical stamp of any theatre outside London. The city no longer provides the level of funding to cover the maintenance on the building that it owns.

In the north-east he visits the Woodhorn Museum where the paintings of the Ashington Group are displayed. He is there because “the Pitmen Painters” toured the UK and did Broadway. But the group were amateurs and the paintings are those of amateurs. The one exception is Oliver Kilbourn who stands far above his friends. The historic interest of the Group is considerable but the artistic achievement overall is not.

Henley draws from the work done by his council. In the chapter “the Learning Dividend” he cites an ACE report from 2014 that taking part in drama and library activities improves attainment in literacy. Taking part in structured music activities improves attainment in maths, early language acquisition and early literacy. From the Cultural Education Challenge he repeats its conclusion: “every child should be able to create, to compose and to perform in their own musical or artistic work.” In the United Kingdom the schools in the Fro are alone in this.

The book holds up well although the chapter “the Innovation Dividend” will not be read in the same light. Back in 2016 it was an easier and a more innocent time for the globe-spanning tech platforms. Streaming of arts events has been good for the rich. The prestige companies in opera and theatre have found themselves new audiences in cinemas around the world. The phenomenon is led by stars. Small organisations are crowded out. The Hampstead Theatre claimed remarkable numbers for a Stella Feehily play. But dipping in on a small screen does not mean lasting the full two and a half hours.

“The Arts Dividend : Why Investment in Culture Pays” says a lot, as much as any insider could put in as a statement of belief. But at the same time as it says everything, it says nothing. In a culture of profusion the demand for funding, whether it be called subsidy or investment, outstrips supply. Arts Councils are allocation bodies. And to be in the public realm adds another dimension of complexity.

To the outsider with no knowledge it is likely that decisions are reached in a way similar to other organisations. Habit, past practice, new ventures, compromise, balance, prior reputation, variation, social amelioration, bias, lobbying and politicking are all in the mix. D W Winnicott, the great child psychologist who became a surprise best seller, popularised the notion of “the good enough mother.” By analogy let the funder-rationer-allocators aspire to be the “good enough arts council.” That is good enough.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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