Don’t kill our creativity

Geraint Talfan Davies argues that culture should be a priority for the Welsh Government in hard times

Not even the most churlish non-golfers in Wales would have experienced any schadenfreude as the rain poured down on the first day of the Ryder Cup last weekend. As Colin Montgomerie said, with his hands safely on the cup, “The world was watching and Wales delivered.” If anything the organisational triumph was all the greater for the challenge that the rain posed. It was a masterstroke of creativity to conceive of winning the event for Wales and to pull it off with such verve. For that reason we should all take pleasure in it.

Even as the rain fell, the IWA was holding a conference on ‘creativity in hard times’, since creativity in all its forms is what makes the difference in any society’s capacity to swim rather than sink. This means creativity in business, in private enterprise, social enterprise and public administration, in science, in our schools and in our arts and culture.

To concentrate on the arts is not just a matter of personal interest, but a recognition that the care we take of the arts, and the use we make of them can be such a springboard for creativity in all these areas. For instance, at the conference Helena Braithwaite, a heroine of music education in Wales, was powerfully persuasive in her case that music can bring so many benefits to the development of a child – its mathematical essence and emotional effects uniting the right and left sides of the brain, aiding concentration, generating confidence, building teamwork. Sad, therefore, that she also had to recount how Wales has fallen behind other parts of the UK in our provision of free music education.

If it were a straight choice between free prescriptions and free music education for all children, there is no doubt in my mind which would have the more powerful social effect, and would bring the greatest benefits to the most disadvantaged. Just look at how it has worked in Venezuela, with its El Sistema programme that has now become the talk of the world – a classic case of creativity in policy-making.

The situation of music education in Wales is a blot on an otherwise good decade for the arts in Wales. The record includes the Assembly’s initial close attention to cultural policy, the creation of a culture ministry (now mistakenly re-labelled Heritage), an uplift in funding, the building of the Wales Millennium Centre and several new galleries and theatres, the launch of the Library of Wales series, the creation of two national theatre companies, Welsh choral singing enjoying a revival, and the launch of the Artes Mundi and Dylan Thomas prizes to form a trio of prizes with the older BBC Cardiff Singer of the World to cover music, the visual arts and literature.

In many ways the Ryder Cup was not the only world event in Wales this summer. Welsh National Opera’s Die Meistersinger with Bryn Terfel at Millennium Centre (pictured above), and National Theatre Wales’s production of Aeschylus’s The Persians were both universally acclaimed and of much more than local significance. The first, one of our oldest national companies performing at its very best; the second, our newest national company making its mark. And both making the rest of the world take note.

As we await the comprehensive spending review on 20 October, one is forced to ask the question: Is it all going to stall? Are we to career backwards? Are we as a society going to squander the investment that has been made over the last decade?

Of course, our artists are not going to become less talented or less committed to their different arts just because we have had to throw an obscene amount of money into rescuing an amoral financial system. The arts are astonishingly resilient. Witness the way in which artists and arts organisations survived the cruel 1990s, hanging on by their fingertips. But let’s not romanticise that resilience. Many organisations were failing to fulfil their potential for lack of funds. By the first year of this decade Welsh National Opera was reduced to producing only one new production and its very solvency was in question. As late as 2003 Peter Doran, Artistic Director of the Torch Theatre at Milford Haven, was having to turn plumber himself to install showers in the theatre’s dressing rooms.

Things are better today. The WNO is in the Millennium Centre and the Torch has been completely refurbished. However, funding for the arts remains fragile. The scale of the reductions that are being widely predicted would do much more damage than the standstill years of the 1990s, despite the Arts Council of Wales’s recent well-handled and prescient Investment Review.

UK Ministers talk of philanthropy filling the gap left by public funding cuts. However desirable that might be, I can find no-one in the arts or in business who believes that that is possible, in London let alone Cardiff or Swansea. WNO, which can take pride in one of the most substantial fund-raising teams in the UK, had been raising £1.8m a year before the recession. A third of that vanished in a matter of months and it will take some years just to get back to square one.

Much depends on how the cultural sector now acts. We will certainly need to act more energetically and cohesively than in the past, and to create the means to do so. The sector needs to become more politically aware, because there have been times when the sector has seemed apolitical. Which is strange for people that make much of the role of the arts in challenging society.

The precedents are not encouraging. In the 1990s there was a tendency to internecine warfare, the ferrets fighting in a sack. We turned on each other rather than on Government. In particular, the world of theatre argued with itself rather than with Ministers.

By now we have gained a little more poise, but largely by keeping our heads down. In the middle of this decade the sector was slow to wake up to the threat to Arts Council of Wales, partly because it couldn’t give up the habit of knocking arts bureaucracy, and partly because it was oblivious to the wider policy issues that affected it.

Then again in the last few years we have witnessed the astonishing quietude of the television production sector in the face of the dismantling of services for Wales. Many will look back and say, they came for ITV and I did nothing, they came for the BBC and I did nothing, but then they came for S4C.

Now, in the run up to the comprehensive spending review – which will be followed by Welsh Government’s budget process – the sector in Wales is strangely quiet again. Organisations have been busy writing their submissions to the Arts Council of Wales’ Investment Review, and since its publication many have been pre-occupied with winding down or even winding up.

We have not acted together because there is no-one devoted to holding us together, other than our main funder – a Government-funded Charter body that operates within constraints that flow inevitably from its funding source. Despite having some Welsh and Scottish members, the London-based National Campaign for the Arts operates essentially within the English context. It has no purchase within Wales.

The cultural sector in Wales has to start shouting more loudly, and arguing more cogently, not just for the self-interest of particular organisations but for the generality of cultural provision, whether funded through the Welsh Government or through local government. It needs to create a capacity for joint action at the national level. The Institute of Welsh Affairs would be ready to take an initiative to establish that if the support of the sector were there.

The same could also be said of the local level. For instance, arts organisations in the Welsh capital need to collaborate more both in terms of provision and advocacy. We need to switch Cardiff Council onto the cultural agenda. The cohesiveness and good will that was generated by the Capital of Culture bidding before 2005 ran like sand through our fingers within months. Cardiff Council has created all kinds of forums in recent years – for business, for young people and for thinking about the future. It has fought shy of creating a cultural forum. Why?

There are causes to be fought. First and foremost, to ensure that in the coming budget process we do not dismantle what we have created so painstakingly in recent years, that we do not denude our private lives and our national life of that spiritual element that is inherent in the arts. It is time to start shouting. We have a great story to tell. There is the  quality of our output, our public appeal, our contribution in education and at the community level, and our disproportionate contribution to projecting Wales in the world.

We also need to ensure that as the Welsh Government develops its events strategy, culture gets its rightful place. We need to campaign for Visit Wales to be as enthused and pro-active in cultural tourism as it is for golf or mountain-biking. The amount spent by the Welsh Government on a three-day car rally would keep a major cultural festival going for three weeks.

One of devolution’s missions was to get us out of our economic hole. But the truth is that the Welsh Government has precious few levers to achieve that. Its only effective lever is education and the culture it tries to instil. That is something it must remember in the next few months.

The arts and culture are not only for the good times. They are a crucial ingredient in our well-being, especially at difficult times. They contribute to our economic well-being, but also work on the human spirit. They provide jobs, drive our creativity, and inspire, comfort and challenge individuals. They can also create social cohesion in a small country often divided by geography and inequality. In its essence devolution is a cultural project, and creativity a major route to survival in hard times.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA and Welsh National Opera.

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