Theatre in Wales

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“Working for an Arts Council Requires a Masochistic Streak”

Governance of Arts Organisations

Geraint Talfan Davies- At Arm’s Length , Seren Books 2008 , June 1, 2023
Governance of Arts Organisations by Geraint Talfan Davies-  At Arm’s Length Dai Smith's predecessor as Chair of the Arts Council of Wales was Geraint Talfan Davies. His memoir “Off the Track” referred to the period of storm that had gone before he was chosen as an interim Chair.

That two-year time of turbulence is remembered in the links below December 2012.

In the way of a small community the two men had been colleagues before. BBC Cymru Wales was common territory. The reading of “Off the Track” prompted a revisit to Talfan Davies' own account “At Arm’s Length”.

Books are not read in the same way with the passing of the years. Aspects from the time, that were once salient, fade. Others, less noticed at the time, grow in significance. The memoir was published in 2008. Much has changed in fifteen years; media has transformed. The author also takes his readers back another thirty years to times that have ceased to be even recent history. For a new generation Cardiff Bay and the Wales Millennium Centre are fixities of geography.

Personalities who were once to the fore are no more. Sir Geoffrey Inkin of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation died in 2013. Zaha Hadid of the not-to-be opera house died in 2016. Nicholas Edwards, Lord Crickhowell, Secretary of State for Wales died in 2018.

Talfan Davies' own career across the media saw the decline of regional newspapers and the ending, as he saw it, of ITV’s regional mission. He recalls Colin Thomas making a documentary for HTV “And Did Corruptly Receive.” The subject was local government corruption.

In the 2020s, by contrast, the Arbed scheme in Bridgend gets barely a mention.* “In the 60s Cardiff was at war with its citizenry”, he writes, over development and demolitions.

In the second half of the book the author leaves journalism for management of the public arts. Threaded across the description of events and controversies there emerges a remarkable, and not common, cultural critique of Wales.

“Working for an arts council requires a masochistic streak” is his first comment. “I lost count of the number of people who used the phrase “poisoned chalice” while giving me a look that suggested in none too-too-subtle a fashion that anyone taking on the job must be mad.”

Many tell him it is a swift route to universal unpopularity. He notes “some friends of the arts believe that poking a friend in the eye does no lasting damage and is therapeutic for both the poker and poked.”

Good writing is lit by detail. He makes an early visit to Milford Haven: “When I visited the Torch soon after joining ACW, its artistic director Peter Doran showed me the dressing room shower cabinets that, for financial reasons, he plumbed in himself, raising the question of who was subsidising who.”

In Aberystwyth his verdict is clear: “Alan Hewson has been an enlightened client to good architects.”

Of the Wales Millennium Centre he writes “Sir David Rowe-Beddoe...had bullied the Assembly Government into making it happen, (albeit with the additional bulldozing support of the finance minister, Edwina Hart.)”

Public culture has a feature to its disadvantage. Its managers rarely address culture. Timothy West wrote that he joined the board of Bristol Old Vic to bring a seasoned actor's experience. The board rarely got to the subject of theatre.

So too forty miles west. Talfan Davies observes:

“Few meetings of an arts council pass without a council member pleading for more time to discuss the art. Despite strenuous efforts, the agendas of arts councils are too often dominated by the encumbrances of our compliance culture in a way that can affect a council's creative relationship with artists and arts organisations.”

He also observes an obvious constant aspect. Public culture is sustained by the unpaid. The Arts Council made the point in evidence to the Culture Committee in the Senedd in 2018:

“One of the most significant sources of non-public funding in the arts is the unpaid time committed by professional artists and creative professionals to delivering projects that they’re involved with. When public funding is tight, arts workers will often absorb the costs themselves by reducing the fees that they take for their work. This isn’t public funding. Nevertheless, it represents a significant hidden ‘subsidy’ to the arts.”

So too Talfan Davies looks at the restructuring that was required in 2002 and notes: “an extraordinary amount of time and commitment from its unpaid members.”

The many unpaid people who make public culture happen are part of civil society.

“National identity has both a political expression, through government, and a social expression, through culture” wrote Robert Hewison in his 1995 book about fifty years of Arts Councils “Culture and Consensus”.

Talfan Davies recounts how often during his tenure he was faced with authority opposed to this distinction.

To be continued.

*The Arbed episode is summed up at:

https://nation.cymru/news/puzzlement-over-police-decision-not-to-investigate-over-damning-caerau-findings/

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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