Arts Council gets retaliation in first

John Osmond reports on a call today to protect funding for culture as the driving force of the Welsh creative economy

In a powerful bid to persuade the Welsh Government to sustain its £24 million budget in the face of looming spending cuts, the Arts Council announced today it was axing funding to 32 organisations in a major shake-up of its strategic priorities.

The money saved, about 15 per cent of its budget, will go on sustaining and in some cases enhancing, support for the Council’s remaining clients, 71 organisations that include flagship companies such as Welsh National Opera, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Academi Literature Promotion Agency, and National Dance Company Wales. The aim is also to free up funds to allow the Arts Council to develop new strands and priorities, especially around cultural diversity of art forms and involving young people in the arts.

However, if the Welsh Government decides this Autumn that the Arts Council will have to shoulder a proportionate 17.5 per cent cut that will be inflicted on the overall Welsh block grant coming from Westminster, then the Arts Council will be forced into a further strategic review and another slimming down of the clients it funds.

Among the 32 organisations that were will have their funding withdrawn are:

  • A string of local music festivals including those at Fishguard, Swansea, North Wales, Llangollen, and the Vale of Glamorgan.
  • Local theatres such as Gwent Theatre, Theatr Harlech, Theatr Powys, Beaufort Theatre, Borough Theatre, Abergavenny.
  • Community Dance Wales, Welsh Independent Dance, and India Dance
  • Audiences Wales, Voluntary Arts Wales, Axis (online resource for contemporary art) and the development agency Creu Cymru.
  • Hay festival
  • Newport Museum and Art Gallery.

At a press conference in Cardiff’s Millennium Centre today Arts Council Chairman Dai Smith stressed that these decisions were based on factors such as audience engagement, levels of excellence and issues around governance and management. However, a quick glance at the organisations that have lost out reveals that most of them are local or community based, the kind of companies that in a previous era would have been sponsored by local government.

Since the 1995 reorganisation and the replacement of eight strategic counties with the present 22 unitary authorities, local government has to a great extent withdrawn from funding the arts, which is not a statutory responsibility. To some extent the Arts Council has been sucked in to fill the vacuum and, as a result, spread its resources too thinly.

Today’s announcement is the culmination of an 18 month strategic investment review which was begun when the world was in a very different place. Since then the banking crisis and recession has intervened with the consequential public sector spending cuts now looming.

Dai Smith made a spirited defence of arts spending today. He said the Arts Council’s budget represented less than half a day of the Welsh Government’s spending in a full year, yet contributed more value than any other sector. “We don’t apologise for making the arts a central concern,” he said. “They are the key driver of the creative economy that Wales wants and needs, because nothing else will drive it. The arts are central to the recovery of the Welsh economy, they are not some kind of luxury.”

He predicted that Wales was entering a period analogous to the 1930s. “That era is written into the DNA of Wales,” he said. “It marked our history and we live in its aftermath. In America Franklin Roosevelt declared that ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ and as part of his New Deal he established agencies to promote literature, music, photography and other art forms. In 1952 Aneurin Bevan echoed Roosevelt when he entitled his book ‘In Place of Fear’ and argued that the best of society was driven by voluntary and collective action that remains aspirational.

“We need that spirit now. We need to let an old country become a new society. Some things are out of our hands, but if we move forward using the arts as our weapon we can bring a new deal for Wales.”

John Osmond is director of the IWA

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