Different ways of working in culture

John McGrath outlines alternative ways of working in heritage and culture

The IWA/Heritage Lottery event Heritage Exchange was an invitation to think big about some of the challenges facing cultural and heritage organisations and practitioners in the years ahead.

This week on Click on Wales


This week on Click on Wales we’ll be examining the modern role that the heritage and cultural sector can play in Wales


Today: John McGrath examines the big issues affecting the heritage sector in Wales

Thursday: Karen Dusgate examines how the heritage sector can work differently to mitigate the challenges it faces

Friday: Katie Jo Luxton calls for us to reconnect with our natural heritage

As artistic director (and chief executive) of National Theatre Wales, I certainly try to keep an eye on the bigger questions facing the company.  But on a day-to-day basis, the pressures and ambitions of the next few weeks and months can often take priority.  So it was invigorating to be asked to identify some of the big issues facing all of us.  Here’s three that I felt will have a major impact for all of us:

The collapse of the current model of local authority provision.  The biggest trick of ‘austerity politics’ has been to de-fund local authorities and leave them looking culpable for most front-line service cuts.  Whatever the political winds of the coming years, the old model of cultural provision at a local authority level looks permanently damaged.

The rise of hyper-urban cultural elites.  From London to Dubai, cultural provision has become a favourite tool of urban policy makers.  From design colleges to opera houses to digital start up hubs, massive investment in culture in mega-cities potentially sucks talent and resources from everywhere else.

The failure of the growth model.  If we simply sit around waiting for GDP to rise and cultural funding to be restored we will be buying into a model that is surely unsustainable in the long-term.

I don’t have big answers to any of these challenges.  Indeed, as I mentioned at the event, NTW is a deliberately small organisation (15 core staff working from above a shop in Cardiff’s Castle Arcade) which focuses on unique, often site-specific events.  We don’t tend to go for grand gestures.

However, that’s also the point, because it is in focussing on the unique, local and specific that we can find new ways forward for culture that are not all about growth and urban elites.

I suggested three principles that we could bear in mind as we try to navigate through big challenges in our own, sometimes small, ways.  The example I gave were from NTW’s work, not because I think we are the only people working in these ways, but simply because this is the work I know best.

Our work should be profoundly collaborative. And I’m not talking solely or mainly about collaboration between institutions.  I gave as an example NTW’s recent work for the Dylan Thomas centenary.  We worked with the BBC on their star-studded production of Under Milk Wood but at the same time NTW artists Marc Rees and Jon Treganna spent months collaborating with the local community in Laugharne (Dylan Thomas’s former home and the model for Under Milk Wood’s Llareggub) to create Raw Material: Llareggub Revisited – a celebration of the town and its inhabitants, and of all the stories that don’t make it onto TV.

Our works should also show a deep level of commitment.  An example I gave from NTW’s recent work related to another centenary – that of the Park and Dare Miners Institute in Treorchy.  A beautiful old building run by a fantastic but very under-resourced staff team, the Park and Dare wanted to work with us on a programme of activity that would engage local people, but also bring new visitors to the institute.  In order to show our commitment to the place and people, we shut down our Cardiff office for a month and all commuted to Treorchy every day.  We learned a lot from the Park and Dare team, and I think that much of the success of our time in Treorchy came from the very visible commitment we made.

And we must always be creative – surprising ourselves with the ideas and outcomes that emerge.  In both Laugharne and Treorchy the work created was very different from anything that might be expected from a ‘community’ project.  Raw Material was more like an avant-garde performance art installation than community theatre, and at the heart of our Treorchy residency was Rachel Trezise’s play Tonypandemonium, a disturbing and challenging piece of ‘new writing’ – the sort of thing that’s supposed to be a ‘hard sell’.  Both pieces were hugely popular with locals as well as with visitors from far and wide – because, I would suggest, of the spirit of collaboration and commitment that informed them.

So, if we head into local, sometimes small, projects, with big thinking and big values, we start to define different ways of working in culture – alternatives to the centralised, growth-reliant models that often dominate the conversation.

It was good to be offered the challenge at Heritage Exchange to explore our work in the context of some of the most significant challenges around, and to be reminded that these challenges don’t exist in a distant or rarefied space but are part of the daily decisions we make, and the examples we try do provide.

John McGrath is the Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales.

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