Theatre in Wales

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Setting the Record Straight

Arts Policy Report

Culture, Welsh Language & Communication Committee , Arts Funding in Wales , May-22-19
Arts Policy Report by Culture, Welsh Language & Communication Committee This month has marked 20 years of devolution. The anniversary has been met soberly, albeit with gratitude, but small sense of triumphalism. As Helen Mary Jones wrote, a Motion of No Confidence in a Minister is tabled neither lightly nor regularly. BBC Wales has done a good job overall, but the commentary has missed a factor that matters. An institution, and a culture, is kept in healthy fettle by the quality of the critique that it engenders of itself, that it contains within itself. This is a such a basic, that it is a surprise that it is not more greatly appreciated within Wales' inner councils.

The Select Committees have been in good form this year, the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by Nick Ramsay, delivering some cogent stingers. That is a benchmark of health for the vitality of the Senedd. The Senedd is not the government. But the commemorative programmes failed to make the distinction between Chamber and Executive. But the Senedd, which endures, is not government, which does not; or at least is not supposed to. The detail can be seen in previous article below 21st February.

The previous articles on the CWLCC, March 2nd and February 21st, were not entirely fair. The brief for the Committee was too big; the arts are all different. Personally I do not expect legislators to have knowledge of the arts anyhow, or even any interest. The big three which they deal with are too important- education, health, economic flourishing. That is why we have arm's length organisations, although the relationship between government, society and Arts Council is a subject for another time.

The arts get lumped together as a group, but they are very different. Painters and writers can practice their own art-forms and build for stock. If success ever calls they have a back catalogue to sell. Actors have only what they have; a day lost is a day foregone. To write- a solo undertaking- is to have more autonomy over time than to perform music. A novelist is able to drive a bus or run the Post Office, in a way that a bassoonist may not. To sculpt is to have a high overhead in studio, stone or metal; to write a sonnet has a low overhead. Film-making has the highest fixed cost of all. For the Committee to have been effective would have meant getting into the income streams. A lot of probing detail would have been required, digging into a range of cost structures that have nothing in common.

The selection of interviewees was skewed. All were industrious, public-spirited, articulate. But the bias was towards managers from public sector bodies. The speakers ironically then delivered their evidence that Wales was overly dependent on public sector financing.

Critics and independent spirits were as little present as were the people who are make Welsh theatre fizz. Everyone, for what it is worth, who has my respect was absent. As noted, Yvonne Murphy was a fiery exception, her contribution naturally entirely excised from the Report.

The February article ended with citing the Terms of Reference. “The effectiveness of efforts to increase non-public funding of the arts in Wales by bodies including the Arts Council, local authorities and artists and arts organisations themselves. This funding would include: earned income; philanthropy; investment.”

“This instruction”, I wrote, “was not reflected in the proceedings or rather was interpreted in a way very much in the tradition of Wales. It is probable that all concerned were unaware of this. Culture is at its most powerful when it works invisibly.”

A parable: a tier-one business school in England designed, in the last century, a unique product. It was aimed at organisations with a half-million pound turnover, the intention to impart the skills, and the confidence, to vault the million pound barrier and beyond. All stages of growth are difficult but this one is particular in its challenge. It sets the point where a founder-entrepreneur-NGO-manager cannot oversee everything themselves. It entails structure or, in short, management. Personal attention is not enough.

This business school went on the road to sell their programme. At road-shows in Wales the first question, invariably, at the post-presentation Q&A was “what's the grant?” There was no grant. The business school gave up on Wales. No organisations were its beneficiary.

So culture is at its most powerful when it works invisibly. The Minister's brief was quite clear: “earned income; philanthropy; investment.” (I have no idea what investment means- equity? venture capital?) So many good people appeared before the Committee. The questioning was entirely restricted to grant applications. Not a single question was asked on growing sales revenues, nor was it suggested that the products of Wales might sell a few more tickets.

The Arts Council contributed a weighty document, in line with its role and its responsibility. Its first paragraph hit the nail about public subsidy. “It's part of an inter-connected ecology of funding and investment that sustains a wide range of subsidised and commercial activities.”

And my own conclusion: “Theatre is a medium for dramatists and actors. They are brand names. Tickets rise when a familiar name is the draw...Innately strong products and focus and investment on a selected number of existing and up-and-coming performance names are the routes to raising the ratio of earned income to public sector grant-giving.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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