Arts break out of the straitjacket

Geraint Talfan Davies puts the Arts Council of Wales’s investment decisions in context

Hauled in to radio studios or before camera crews to talk about the very welcome addition to Welsh National Opera’s grant from the Arts Council of Wales, I left longing for the day to arrive when an interview about opera, or for that matter, the arts in general did not include the accusation ‘elitist’. It is such a tired charge you might think it would be dropped by journalists simply on the grounds that it lacks novelty.

It finds an echo in the ranks of the Taxpayers Alliance, where one blogger who, predictably, professes to be ‘not against heritage or art’, but gives the game away with a final question: “If the Welsh or British Government cannot find anything else to invest in, maybe we as taxpayers, could have a reduction in the amounts that we pay?”

Thank goodness, this is not a meaningful question for those hundreds of thousands of people of every age and class who cannot imagine a Wales without its arts, who fill our theatres and concert halls, or flock to join WNO’s singing clubs or community choirs, or enrich their lives through the work of Caernarfon’s William Mathias Music Centre, or who enjoy the myriad ways in which the Welsh landscape and its people can be captured in paint, or who gain pleasure from a novel or poem. These people know that, even in the hardest times, there is a spiritual dimension to life that needs to be sustained.

Nevertheless, news about sustained or increased funding for 71 arts organisations can look odd in the present climate. But before anyone rushes to criticise, let’s consider how we got there. It is a chain of events.

First, in the comprehensive spending review the government in England chose to ring-fence the health service – an act which, by the arcane workings of the Barnett formula, meant that the block grant to the Welsh Government turned out rather better than most feared, although not obviating the accusations of unfairness to Wales levelled at the formula itself.

Second, the Welsh Government chose not to ring fence the health service in Wales, because that would have had untenable consequences for every other area of spend.

Third, it is clear that the Arts Council of Wales mounted effective arguments for the multi-faceted value of the arts themselves, no doubt also arguing that the total spend on the arts in Wales – barely a tenth of one per cent of the Welsh Government’s funding – is such that even a swingeing cut would not release a sum that would make a meaningful difference to any other area of policy. The Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones, and the Finance Minister, Jane Hutt, would have been key to gaining Cabinet acceptance of this line.

This resulted in the proposal for a four per cent cut for the Arts Council of Wales over the next three years, widely regarded as a good settlement in the circumstances. Even allowing for the fact that we had a slightly better overall financial settlement, it is surely to Wales credit that its government was prepared to support its arts in this way. It is a sign of a civilised country.

But then, fourth, we come to the Arts Council itself. I doubt that the Council would have secured such a settlement had it not also managed to convince government that it was prepared to take tough decisions. The truth is that its recent Investment Review was carried out in an exemplary fashion – clear, open and transparent, rigorous in prioritising, strategic in intent, with artistic considerations to the fore. The quality and frequency of communication through the process also did a lot to prevent the emergence of the kind of groundswell of discontent that has accompanied such exercises in the past.

One marker of that fact is that the Council has managed to trim the theatre in education sector in a way that, when something similar was attempted in the late 1990s, produced such a furore that it almost killed the Council. It was tripped up by poor process. This time round Nick Capaldi, the Council’s chief executive, has brought a confident sureness of touch to the organisation, aided by the forcefulness and rhetorical bite of his chairman, Dai Smith.

Normally, when arts councils review their portfolios, it is easy at the end of the process for Ministers to baulk at the end result, and for local AMs and MPs to ride out in support of threatened organisations in their area. But this time the Council was lucky in one thing: it had started its investment review before the recession began, but by the time, earlier this year, that it was ready to disclose that it wished to drop 32 of its client organisations, the gloom of recession meant that there was little appetite for a fight.

It is perhaps inevitable that when decisions are disclosed there is emphasis on winners and losers, particularly losers. The pain of having to wind down organisations run by talented and committed people is real and intense. Everyone in the arts will sympathise with their less lucky colleagues. But we should not forget the real dilemma that the Council faced, and faced up to systematically and courageously.

I know that when I was at the Arts Council of Wales earlier in the decade, we carried out research that showed that we had more clients than our equivalent in Scotland, despite Scotland being twice the size. It meant that the average grant per client at the time was £150,000 in Wales and £300,000 in Scotland. The size of the client portfolio in Wales was unsustainable. To have continued with it would not only have meant perpetuating financial and ultimately artistic weakness, but also have straitjacketed the council in a way that would have prevented it making any strategic impact. It has now broken out, to very considerable effect.

For this reason it is pity that in the coverage of the announcement there could not have been less emphasis on individual grants and more emphasis on the strategic gains. The result has been a strengthening of our gallery network for the visual arts, new investment in dance, a focus on the very best of community arts, new clients such as Sinfonia Cymru, Independent Ballet Wales, Nofitstate Circus, as well as the insistence on a core of national companies resourced to provide leadership and to carry the Welsh flag beyond our border.

Geraint Talfan Davies is the Chairman of Welsh National Opera and a former Chair of the Arts Council of Wales.

Also within Culture