Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

“Sanctity of the Arm's Length Principle Was the Bugbear"

Governance of Arts Organisations

Dai Smith- Off the Track , Parthian Books , May 4, 2023
Governance of Arts Organisations by Dai Smith- Off the Track “The bloated size of its client list and various of its policies, including its continually ill-fated drama strategies, needed some profound thought.”

This is not the usual style of language when public culture and public policy are being discussed. Dai Smith, thrice-appointed Chair of the Arts Council of Wales, is writing about his predecessor, Geraint Talfan Davies, and the task he approached.

It was not an easy time. Over the decades Arts Councils across all the nations have found themselves in not easy times. Smith again draws on lively words to capture the era.

“The fog of misunderstanding, ill will, collision and confusion that enveloped the Arts Council for two years between 2004 and 2006 as the governmental “bonfire of the quangos” was lit...was, depending on how you squinted at the conflict, a farce of Clochemerle proportions or a tragic Crise de Civilisation.”

He has a diagnosis. Government has a tradition of leaning towards direction of the nation's artists. A half millennium ago authority in Wales considered that wandering minstrels spread “sinister usages and customs”. The Act of Union allowed their prosecution. Smith concludes of the attempt by Cardiff Bay to tether the Council:

“In my view, this fight, ending in a kind of score draw, pitted constitutional principles against the power game of political willpower. There was, once it began, little chance of being settled by consensual goodwill. Instead, it became more and more heated and quarrelsome in its mode.”

Talfan Davies himself in his own memoir was surprised that government should be so exercised over a 0.2% line item in its budget. Royal Charter status is Royal Charter status. Back in 1984 a publication “Culture and the State” put it succinctly:

“A Royal Charter is not granted lightly and involves lengthy and detailed negotiation. The body concerned and responsible legislators therefore have a duty to ensure that at all times the body is enabled and encouraged to pursue the aims and objects imposed by its Charter. Great care is also taken to ensure that these duties and obligations are not, however, inadvertently transferred elsewhere.”

“Of course”, writes Smith, “the sanctity of the arm's length principle was the bugbear.” The attitude of political authority is little respectful of civic variation. “Forcibly, over and over, the directives were to be from government, albeit clothed in the best intentions of the well-behaved.”

In this climate he takes on the role of interim chair for “that bruised and beleaguered Council.” Guided into “the intricacies of ACW'S outer actions and inner activities” he recalls himself as “confronted by our funding of the mediocre, the self-satisfied, the self-entitled and the utterly irrelevant.”

Smith's role in the arts of Wales is the period of interest for a theatre site. It comes late in a book of 400 crammed pages. Dai Smith has had a lot of life to look back on across universities, broadcasting, publishing and cultural management. He is a member of the Great and the Good, the little band that ensures the monism and self-protection of public life, but he has never yielded up a youthful spirit of verve and attention.

In an interview in 2015 he was asked why Wales was bereft of thinkers and critics. His response included:

“Public Intellectuals have, too often, been seen as Public Inconveniences in Wales. By which I mean that we are often frightened or cowed into silence by the cosy nonsense that promotes the Idea of Team Wales...Cultural criticism would be a threat, an exposure of the comfort Welsh blanket with which we are so ready to drape ourselves, all cwtched-up and myopic in the hold-tight, don’t-let-go arms of Mam. I think there are, indeed, cultural reasons for our relative impoverishment.”

A big presence in the life of the nation he has also managed to add fiction to a full career. The life of a Council Chair is one of reports and meetings, meetings and reports. Smith brings the deftness, colour and economy of a novelist to his account of these daily dealings.

On meeting the First Minister: “Rhodri did most of the talking- only pausing to allow us to talk back when I blurted out an outrageous cock and bull story of entirely “fake views” as if it was true, and then telling him to his face as his jaw dropped that it was the only way we could get his attention.”

Of Alan Pugh: “not deeply interested in the arts for themselves...did not attend arts events or keep key dates in his diary as others would have done...Political intransigence and sectoral partitions made professional relationships coldly transparent at best, frosty at worst,”

The culture portfolio is a merry-go-round with seven ministers in ten years. Of Carwyn Jones: “promised us everything and so was immensely popular as he floated free of any concrete responsibility.”

Of Ken Skates: “began to micromanage in a Lilliputian echo of the more expansively ambitious control once essayed by Alun Pugh.”

Of Edwina Hart: “the Rosa Klebb figure behind the Welsh Government's philistine attempts to separate so-called creative industries from the arts.”

If the literary reference has faded Rosa Klebb was invented by Ian Fleming in 1957. A sociopath possessed of orange hair and yellow-brown eyes she distinctively had a retractable poisoned spike in her shoe to see off adversaries.

A meeting with Huw Lewis is transcribed with dialogue over two pages. Its ripeness and novelistic close-up observation of a political process have no equivalent elsewhere.

With this memoir Dai Smith has performed a fine valediction to a long life of public and cultural service. “Off the Track” adds valuably to the cultural self-knowledge of Wales.

Dai Smith appears at the Llandeilo Literary Festival 29th April and the Hay Literary Festival 2nd June.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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