Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The Benefits of Less Strategy

Arts Policy Report

The Allure of Strategy , Public Financing of the Arts , July-01-19
Arts Policy Report by The Allure of Strategy All art forms embody tension. That brings them close to life. To go looking for the tensions is to go looking for the things that reveal. The same is true for the actions behind the art. The study of organisational form has changed beyond all recognition in a generation. The boxes and graphics that showed taut flows of cause-and-effect have gone. Metaphors from nature have taken their place.

There may be congruence between intention and outcome- how things actually come to be played out- but often not. There is an optimism that sincerity in itself will bring about the fulfilment of purpose. So, in the documents of state a line can arise like this that is characteristic. “The Committee recommends that the Welsh Government should consider implementing a clear strategy to assist Wales’ arts sector to grow international markets.”

The first salient aspect is its quality of tentativeness- “should consider” in place of “go and do.” But the second is the faith in strategy, or rather “clear strategy” as distinct from the unclear ones. The recommendation comes from the Resilience Report, but it could be from any of many. “Strategy” sounds good. It sounds serious, it feels as if we are being brainy. A part of the Ministerial response runs on what is necessary: “a more planned, joined-up approach is needed to ensure the cultural sector is able to contribute to our international aspirations.” I think not, my own view being more pragmatically based on observation.

China is mentioned. Maybe the people of China have a good knowledge of the culture of Wales. Punchdrunk is wowing the citizens of Shanghai nightly and has been doing so for an age. An outcome has come into being, its course probably unstrategised. It is more likely the wasp rather than the bee in the bottle.

To make mention of strategy at this time is appropriate. It is the twentieth anniversary of the announcement of a Drama Strategy for Wales. It ran and raged for 22 months; the heat was great and the light less so. Strategising in Scotland a decade on had a similar effect, culminating in the defenestration of arts executives. Its intentions were good. To plan for the arts is a good idea but it must embrace the random. It is intrinsic to the arts, and most creative behaviour, that the end point may not be the intent. Tim Price and John McGrath did well with “the Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.” What came out was not determined at the outset. There was a broad principle in play, that the content should comprise a contemporary public theme.

Emergent design is the way of the universe. So too, for arts management to fully flourish, the random must be acknowledged. Those who think about these things, and earn a living in the doing of it, are drawing on the life sciences for their metaphors. Thus the Warwick Commission looks to the biosphere: “the Cultural and Creative Industries, together with education, play a crucial role in building an ecosystem.”

It is an early line from its report 2015 “Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth”. But the words are wrong, verb and noun being in a false apposition. Ecosystems are examples of emergent design; there is no builder. Writers should rightly draw on metaphors but then they should have the mettle to see them through to their conclusions. A wiser voice prevailed in Wales when an unknown author wrote “the Arts Council of Wales is essentially an enabling body”.

The area of public arts discussion has a drawback. Everyone is well-intentioned, probably privately nice. I chanced this week on a part of a state visit, the location a great gallery in Europe. Eminent visitors were led to the best of the collections. So state eminences, hosts, translators, security officials, photographers gathered in awe of the art of a murderer. Caravaggio was by no means a good man, but then the history of what moves us is not a progress through virtue.

The committees of the good that draw on metaphors of ecology have a constant in their make-up. No ecologists are actually present as part of the proceedings. Thus the language leans inevitably in one direction. “The Cultural and Creative Industries must join together”, the aim declared “to work jointly towards industry as well as government solutions to the many challenges that need to be addressed." The end result lies “in achieving success in a joined-up, ecosystem approach.”

But had an actual ecologist been present she would have pointed out the nature of an ecosystem, that it is far from joined-up. Loose connection is the principle, autonomous existence the result of occupying an ecological niche. This is the best predictor of success, in human affairs as much as biology. Settle on a single aim, and throw every energy in the way of its accomplishment. There is only one Punchdrunk. Everyone who knows the company knows what it is. (This is not a recommendation; I know people who have loathed a Punchdrunk performance.)

But it comes with a clarity, in the same way as three letters, RSC, communicates. I wrote a few years ago on a company that meets what feels like a good criterion. “Bianco” must hit every possible access criterion”, ran my report from Bluestone in the summer of 2013, “the audience runs from hippies to pensioners, ages three to seventy-three.” Nofit knows what it is.

But then the microcosm is not reflected in the macrocosm. “The funding system has never been clear about what it seeks to achieve from the process of funding drama.” That was Michael Bogdanov. His was admittedly not a disinterested voice, and he was writing at the end of another century. But he would have been surprised that the very word “drama” has come to be held in suspicion. Not where it matters in the auditorium, in from of you and me, but in the lecture halls where the influence has not been to the betterment of performance.

It can be guessed that the Government of Wales would like a show to run for months in Shanghai. But, until a first step is taken, it is unlikely to happen. Not impossible, because serendipity, the unexpected outcome is the rule. But it would be surely helped by better alignment of the means to the end. And that requires three things.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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