Theatre in Wales

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1989: "I Keep Preaching that Arts Council Money Should Be Spent on Art”

Governance of Arts Organisations

Things That Stood Out in 2021 , Culture in 2021 , January 20, 2022
Governance of Arts Organisations by Things That Stood Out in 2021 January 2022 is a unique month for theatre. Tim Price has a production in the hands of a league-one director at a grade-one venue. No review will feature here; the Donmar Theatre is sold out.

Mali O'Donnell, a Covid-19-era graduate, is a company member in a revival of the musical adaptation of "Spring Awakening." At the Almeida Theatre also not a ticket is unsold.

In Milford, Mold, Swansea and Cardiff there are also no tickets to be had. The reason is not because of overwhelming demand from audiences. Theatres of Wales have not performed since Christmas Eve. No actors, singers or dancers to write about; the opportunity to look back on things said in 2021 continues.

Culture may freeze but talk is constant. So, in approximate order of good sense downward.

* * * *

Get the Chance got to speak to Geinor Styles 28th July

GTC: With the roll out of the Covid-19 vacancies, the arts sector is hopeful audiences will return to venues. If venues want to attract audiences, what do you think they should do?

GS: "Put on shows. There is a spanner in the wheel called R & D. It’s like an insurance policy against bad theatre, but all it does is clog up the system, and nothing gets produced in fear of it not succeeding.

"Companies funded as part of RFA have a track record of creating great work, and there should be a level of confidence in those companies to do that.

"The development of new writing or a seed of an idea is different, but still, there should be places for that work to be seen and tried out; otherwise, there will be nothing on our stages. No product, no audience, no data to be collected for future strategies. Invest in the art."


* * * *

Parthian Books published a collection of essays on public issues in the summer. The span of "The Welsh Way" was wide. Among the contributors two touched interestingly on culture.

Dafydd Huw Rhys' essay "Drowned Out: Wales' Absent Public Sphere" is heavily influenced by Habermas. Rhys concludes that the thinness of intellectual life leads to a result:

"The virtuous cycle of feedback between the public sphere and the state, vital to deliberative democracy, cannot take place. Wales' absent public sphere constrains cultural output, impedes the development of a collective civic identity, and hampers flourishing of the Welsh language."

Although he does not use the term, entropy occurs, a sapping of energy where no feedback cycle exists.

Much activity in Cardiff comprises boosterism, BBC Wales having largely taken this self-adopted route.

* * * *

The second significant essay on culture in "the Welsh Way" is by Kieron Smith and titled "Cultural Policy and Cultural Crisis".

Smith criticises the Culture Committee's "Count Me In!". The Senedd Committee too is resolute on reducing the public sphere, doing away with the independence of the Arts Council.

"The Welsh Government should require the Arts Council for Wales [sic] all arts and cultural bodies in receipt of public funding to set out their objectives for tackling their strategic plans."

"Here arts organisations", writes Smith, "already strenuously run by low-paid and precariously employed workers- are not only expected to produce high-quality art, but to shape their practice to pick up the slack that has failed to look after its most vulnerable."

He looks to Raymond Williams writing on cultural policy as "display, the state building images and symbols of itself. No space or time is made for culture for its own sake, as an unquantifiable variable, or as a medium for social critique and dissent".

Culture is to be used to reinforce the status quo. Williams: "an arts policy of a certain kind turns out when examined to be not a policy for the arts but a policy for embellishing, representing, making more effective a particular social order or certain preferred features in it."

* * * *

“Our approach focuses on two objectives”, runs a policy document, “the arts as the basis of protest and dissent, the arts as surprise, contradiction and discomfort."

The policy quotation was written by the Arts Council of Wales. But it was a few years back. Nick Capaldi was Chief Executive at the time. He retired in the summer of 2021; his last period was to oversee the administration of the Cultural Recovery programme in a time of no public art.

This notion of public art as part of a widened public sphere has, it appears, been weakened. The Culture Committee is an opponent. The Western Mail of 19th August published a prominent article. It was jointly authored by Phil George and Roger Lewis. The phrasing is filled with generalised assertion. An article of this quality written by the equivalent office-holders in Scotland or England is unthinkable.

It was written at a time when the press in London had itself a juicy story from Wales, fifty thousand pounds plus directed by the Arts Council away from public-facing art. Most of all the authors firmly set public culture in service to the state.

"Wales is becoming a far more collaborative society" they declare. This is in line with a general trend by leaders in public life that Wales be imbued with virtue. "Let’s continue being a compassionate, socially responsible nation. It’s in our DNA." That was Mark Seymour writing for the Institute of Welsh Affairs a month later 27th September. This need for virtue over efficacy is a neurosis.

* * * *

But nothing is ever wholly new. Sculptor Jonah Jones attended a meeting in Cardiff in February 1989, his diary recording “I keep preaching that Arts Council money should be spent on art.”

Graham Laker a decade on in the 90s reacted to yet another culture policy document. The document read: “Wales as a forward-looking and dynamic country. In the next century success will lie with those societies which can nurture and mobilise the creative talents of their people.”

Laker wrote: “Why is it impossible to read this without feeling mildly depressed? It's not that it's complete bullshit: somewhere in the midst of its "nineties-speak", there are some nuggets of truth. It's not even the ease with which the statement elides into a view of the Arts as just another component of Enterprise Wales.

"It's one of the great ironies of state subsidy that any Arts Council has to argue its case on the basis of the dominant political ethos.

"Individually, of course, Arts Council officers and members know that the Arts have quite a different agenda: thev will chortle with as much glee as anybody else when a performance of Mark Ravenhill's "Shopping and F***ing" at Swansea Grand has the City Fathers foaming at the mouth with rage. Institutionally, on the other hand, the Arts Council of Wales feels that it needs to act as an extension of the Welsh Office, which to all intents and purposes it is.”

Knock out the Welsh Office and replace it with the Government of Wales; the fealty to power is much the same, in fact now more overt and declarative. If the Government feels the need for a Ministry of Culture then form one and get rid of the Arts Council. Then there will be clarity as to who is acting on behalf of whom.

We turn to writers to speak for us. E M Forster in "When a national culture becomes governmental, it always become falsified."

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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