State funding for the arts….or not?

Julian Ruck says the concentration of arts funding in Wales limits creativity.

The ‘Age of Entitlement’ is over.

And we in Western economies had better start getting used to the fact.

‘Living on Less’ has to be the new 21st Century mantra. Corruptions of Beverage humane but temporary social insurance are no longer viable, and the same applies to ancient and unrealistic Bevanite gratuity.

Credit cards have been maxed out. There’s no more room at the Inn.

Western economies are wallowing in a mire of stagnation and there is no easy exit, indeed this writer must argue that escape routes will not appear for at least a generation, or even two. Affluence was gratifying while it lasted, but like most good things it has come to end. The annihilation of middle class thrift and industry hasn’t helped.

Priorities have to change. The Welfare State and Social Justice have to adjust.

So, where does State funding for the arts fit in to this brave new world?

Put simply, where aesthetic deliverance is concerned: poetry and conceptual art, or more investment in the future and how Wales will prosper in a modern global economy eg more IT provision in Welsh schools and more foreign language tuition?

NB Only 22% of Welsh schoolchildren are learning a foreign language. 11% in some areas.

The argument for Arts subsidy has largely been won. The prevailing view in the Arts world is that non-commercial activity ie say opera, theatre, museums etc can be good for tourism, hospitality, local economies and so on, as well as driving inward investment and being a generally good thing for society.

Where Wales is concerned, the concentration of patronage for the arts is in the hands of one body ie the Welsh Assembly. This inevitably imposes some degree of standardisation on the character of taxpayer funded works. The only result being success for the mundane and mediocre and obstacles for the new and innovative.

The Arts Council of Wales, Literature Wales and the Welsh Books Council are the arbiters of who gets what when it comes to Welsh artistic endeavor.

Allow me to deal firstly with books.

There is an argument is there not, that publishing is a purely commercial activity and  brings none of the benefits as stated above eg inward investment?

Indeed, millions from the public purse going on Welsh books written in English (Welsh language books are an entirely different matter)  that don’t sell and no-one reads, hardly adds to societal fibre, does it?

And what about the ebook?

£80-100 will see it published on Amazon, job done as it were and at virtually no cost to the taxpayer. Whatever one’s romantic attachment to print books, they are on their way out. To quote Tom Wheldon of Penguin Random at the London Book Fair this year, “Print bookshops are disappearing.“ Not to mention the fact, that Waterstones are only going to last as long as its Russian owner is prepared to indulge in an expensive hobby.

In James Daunts (CEO of Waterstones) own words, results for 2012-2013 were “torrid.”

Poetry and conceptual art, or more investment in the future………?

It is apparent that the Arts Council of Wales has questions to answer and not only in respect of quality control where the Welsh publishing industry is concerned.

Its accounts are to be scrutinised by a Public Accounts Committee shortly, there are also at least two investigations into its management of public funds taking place by the Wales Audit Office as I write.

7 Arts Council of Wales officials (yes, that’s 7 in case anyone is thinking of taking a trip to Specsavers) going to the Biennale to support a Welsh artist exhibiting the recording of a man snoring in a telescope, each claiming £2000 (approx.) from the taxpayer for the weekend break. £25, 000 for a Welsh poet to seek out other poets in South America. £25,000 for another Welsh poet to remove himself from a place of comfort, in order for him to think and contemplate?

Thousands of pounds in bursaries/subsidies (some receiving multiple handouts) going to well-off Welsh celebrities, Welsh academics and Welsh media staffers and presenters eg BBC Wales, ITV Wales, Western Mail. All documented, all fully verifiable.

So much for an independent Welsh media?

The above are just some examples of ‘entitled’ preferment, and be in no doubt that there are plenty more. Indeed the above are just the tip of a towering iceberg.

These awards, these handouts do nothing for the Welsh economy, they do nothing for the betterment of society. In many instances though not all, a culture of entitled taxpayer subsidy for Welsh arts merely serves to suppress creativity:

“I’ll get my £10,000 anyway, so what the hell!”

In days gone by, those aristocrats of the Welsh working class, the miners, maintained some of the most magnificent libraries in the land.

Their blackened sweat and shovels paid for them.

They did not feel entitled.

Subsidised Welsh arts, forfeited any claim to noble intent a long time ago.

Julian Ruck is a novelist, broadcaster and columnist.

25 thoughts on “State funding for the arts….or not?

  1. Julian, Noticed subtle messages between the lines about lets call it ‘quirky funding decisions’ by the Arts Council of Wales but in my world of North-West Wales where non-Welsh speakers have no rights to public employment and who are prohibited from choosing English medium education for their children one has to call spade a spade in other words to be direct and uncompromising in questioning the wisdom, rationale and seemingly never ending funding of anything to do with the Welsh language promotion and its imposition.

    Lets stick with the Arts Topic as at this very moment a circa 40 Million publically funded Arts Centre attached to Bangor University is nearing a long overdue completion.

    Perhaps it may surprise many IWA readers that Bangor University has decided only to employ fluent bilingual staff in the Welsh language context to run and operate the Arts Centre!

    I always thought that the arts is one of the few tools available to mankind to transcend cultural and linguistic differences but I must be wrong as when I queried the linguistic employment bias extended to Welsh speakers only with the Bangor University and under the FOI provisions (Reference: FOI 735), I got the following reply:

    “All staff appointments are categorised in relation to their Welsh Language requirement in accordance with the University’s Code of Practice for Staff Appointments which is part of its Welsh Language Scheme required under the provision of the Welsh Language Act 1993. All public-facing posts are considered to be Welsh Essential posts. In relation to volunteers, we will recruit both English and Welsh-speaking volunteers who will be deployed according to the needs of the programme.”

    When I asked about the Arts Centre construction funding I got the following reply:

    Welsh Government (SCIF) 15.0
    ERDF 12.5
    Arts Council of Wales 3.5
    Môn a Menai Regeneration Fund 0.4
    Garfield Weston Foundation 0.3
    Private Donors 0.3

    (The project cost is just over 40 Million but Bangor University only disclosed funding origins amounting to 33 Million)!

    Knowing the uncompromising mind-set on ‘Welsh Language Above All Else’ issues that dominate the Y Fro public sector of Gwynedd, Anglesey and Ceredigion I obtained clarification from the Welsh Government on the legal status of the Welsh Language Schemes (Soon Welsh Language Standards) and have duly copied the full response to Bangor University together with my FOI queries and must say I was surprised that they are using guidance documents with no legal weight behind them as a tool to effectively practice ‘Racial Discrimination’.

    The following is the Welsh Governments response issued to me by Millar Michael (DfES-WLU):

    “The Welsh Language Act 1993 established the Welsh Language Board and also, under Part II of the Act, makes provision about Welsh Language Schemes. Public bodies providing services to the public in Wales must, if notified by the Board to do so, prepare a scheme. However, Schemes are not Statutory Instruments.

    Schemes specify the measures that a public body proposes to take as to the use of the Welsh language in connection with the provision of its services to the public in Wales for the purpose of giving effect, so far as is both appropriate in the circumstances and reasonably practicable, to the principle that in the conduct of public business and the administration of justice in Wales the English and Welsh languages should be treated on a basis of equality. The Act specifies the public bodies within the scope of the Act, and also provides a mechanism (under section 6 (1) (o) of the Act) for the Welsh Ministers to specify other bodies by Order as “public bodies”.”

    So, the Welsh and English languages are equal as far as public staffing provisions go but then in Bangor Arts Centre context and many other public bodies in Wales the Welsh Language is ‘MORE EQUAL’!!??

  2. Mr.Ruck has history with this type of misleading ‘Daily Mail’ anti-Welsh rant. However, this is probably born out of frustration with Arts organisations such as the Welsh Books Council and Literature Wales. This is legitimate. In some cases, it is difficult, for most people not just Arts practitioners, to comprehend the how and why financial support is offered and to whom. It is understandable that there is a pervasive perception of a ‘clique’ that runs these quangos.
    However, continued support to Wales-based artists and writers of any kind is to be welcomed and is vital to the Welsh cultural economy. Of course, there should be continued scrutiny of these organisations and maybe it is incumbent upon them to justify (in layman’s terms) what they are doing.
    My particular issue is that the Welsh Books Council make it economically unviable for independent Welsh publishers to use their distribution system. This doesn’t mean I want them to be disbanded (they are all terribly nice people!). I think maybe they need to rethink/adjust some of their methods to reflect the rapidly changing world of publishing.

  3. Wales has two languages in some areas Welsh is prioritized for very understandable reasons after centuries of exclusion from the public space and official neglect. Whilst the status of Welsh has improved and there is a renaissance in the metropolitan areas of the South East there is a crisis in the older heartlands and therefore the requirement for bilingualism in the public sphere in these areas seems totally proper.This is especially true when there is universal access to excellent learning facilities. This is no excuse of course for poor education or gravy trains but the impression that these are due to efforts to improve the position of the Welsh language is not supported by the evidence.

  4. It seems that people volunteering to be involved in the Pontio Arts project are asked if they are fluent Welsh speakers. If the answer is ‘No’ then there is no opportunity for them to be involved.

    Pontio means a bridge. Pontio in Bangor is not a bridge but a barrier to the effective participation in the arts unless you are a fluent Welsh speaker. Any local artist, sculptor, musician or creative person who is not a Welsh speaker cannot be involved as a volunteer in the Pontio project.

    I am also very aware that new engagements in the Pontio building are made to Welsh speakers when there are far more experienced and qualified people available who are not Welsh speakers. This is already leading to serious problems in management and productive efficiency.

    What staggers me personally is how this deliberate local discrimination against non-Welsh speakers is being funded by EU, when such a high proportion of people in modern multi-racial Bangor are not Welsh speakers. This sad situation does no favours to the reputation of Bangor University.

  5. This is a brave, honest article. The Welsh arts Establishment will not forgive or forget – but, of course, that is hardly a problem if Julian is one of the great majority of Welsh writers and artists who never had a hope of getting any money out of the self-perpetuating magic circle anyway.

    Although there is a strong case for public subsidy of national prestige projects like the Welsh National Opera, the National Museum, and some – but not most – public art, the Arts Councils’ involvement in the organic development of literature and the arts has been counter-productive. Post-War Britain has not exactly been Renaissance Florence anyway, but such works of merit and originality as have emerged have not come through the state-subsidy route.

    The nationalisation and bureaucratisation of the arts has resulted in layabouts who support the Establishment living off the Establishment, while genuine talent is ignored. Like most public sector activity in Wales it is one more excuse for jobs for the boyos.

    Politicians tend to be reluctant to cut arts subsidies for fear of being called philistines – because most of them are. Yet true lovers of literature and the arts should be the ones leading the revolution to smash the whole corrupt bureaucracy.

    ‘A writer isn’t a writer because he has a membership card but because he writes’ – Mikhail Bulgakov.

  6. State funded arts is elitists, both here in Wales and in England, we have the Eisteddfod in Wales which should be populist, but as a non-Welsh speaker I can’t judge.

    If I were able to influence spending I would suggest an English language cultural festival on the lines of the Eisteddfod, celebrating our various cultures through competition, where the judges would be the people, not selected from the realm of the great and good, a people’s festival where the people decide what cultural endeavour deserves our taxes.

  7. Well, if there are people receiving ill-considered funding; for example, if we don’t think it is a good use of money to spend it on a poet travelling to South America to meet other poets/to develop his or her practice, then I suppose we should review the guidelines on this sort of spending. But what if that poet is thought talented? is likely to be productive, as a poet, and hasn’t the income to afford such a project? Then what? Or do we only see poets in terms of commercial returns such as in tourism, and so deny poets any funding when we no longer value their commercial contribution.

    Waterstones book shops are the standard book shops in many large towns and cities. Small, independent shops are minority enterprises. Yet people still enjoy visiting them all. Amazon online is able to compete on price and on accessibility (being open all hours), but their books don’t always compete on quality. Printing and binding, covers, and editions, aren’t always a match for those that traditional booksellers are able to select and supply. The independent bookseller’s skills and insight can count for much more.

    The small publisher is often the only or the particular choice for a poet – where else does the artist poet go when larger ‘mainstream’ publishers cannot see a market for ‘niche’ writing? The small publisher may understand the poet’s milieu better than a house in London, and have the perception and dedication to produce a book which truly serves the poet’s words; sometimes that book is a work of art itself, and might even contain work by visual artists. Such books will be individual treasures.

    In hard times, we have to think how best to use limited resources. It seems important to give children the necessary skills (apparently these are now languages and I.T.) to succeed in the broader world of work. But if the arts were not thought to be merely adjuncts of tourism and retailism, we might hold their value to be central to our children’s and our own lives, and accord our artists greater dignity and regard instead of thinking of them as greater or lesser forms of entertainment.

  8. To Chris Jones:
    ‘Misleading Daily Mail anti-Welsh rant?
    Do point out exactly where my piece is misleading?
    I must remind you that earlier today on Daily Politics, Leanne Wood seemed somewhat flummoxed when asked by Andrew Neil to state exactly where the DM journos had got their facts wrong on the Welsh NHS?
    Since when is it ‘anti-Welsh’ to exercise normal democratic scrutiny? Or do you believe that Wales is somehow above such trifling endeavour?
    Perhaps your ‘terribly nice people’ should go out and get a proper job, instead of nobbling the hard pressed taxpayer for exercises in pure delusion?

    To Glasnost Uk:
    I take your point entirely. I have written many columns on the issues you raise.
    The critical problem one has with this ‘Wales for Welsh speakers’ dictum, is that it results in the recruitment of mediocrity-Welsh speakers make up an extremely small pool of talent to draw from -and of course it also stunts both UK and international diversity of talent in what is now a global economy.
    If Wales is to flourish it must look outwards…… not inwards.

  9. With respect Alice, the ‘ poet’ in question referred to by Mr.Ruck is in fact the senior lecturer of Cardiff University’s MA Creative Writing degree as as such is already a receiver of a very ‘tidy’ , as we say in Wales, salary courtesy of WAG government funds, and as such could fund his own travels around South America , but not the hard – pressed Welsh Taxpayer.

  10. I think I agree with Alice on this. If commercial considerations were the only factor almost nothing from Wales, no matter how meritorius, would ever get published or seen or heard or read or acted. There may be dubious subjective criteria for judging artistic ‘merit’ but then that has always have been the case.
    It is not quite the case that the cream rises to the top, more often than not it is the scum. As Umberto Eco points out the world of book publishing is full of cons and crooks. How many aspiring Welsh authors (and other artists) have been ripped off in one way or another by the London ‘Arts’ snoots, by agents, by publishers, by assorted promoters, by hacks and critics. Maybe Mr.Ruck should have a go at them first and not the somewhat easier target of the Welsh arts people. Or is he afraid?
    My main irritation is the lack of appreciation of such stellar talents as Gwyn Thomas in favour of the grossly overhyped adulation of Dylan Thomas (a century too late to do him any good!).

  11. Let’s face friends, it a lot of Welsh life in the arts and elsewhere is a culture in denial ,and one of dependency and an outmoded sense of, “entitlement “. Chip – on – the – shoulder I’d call it.
    Poor old Dylan Thomas getting the stick yet again because he was a writer , of fiction as well as of poetry and of world – class status.
    He had no state funding or, ‘Creative Wales Award ‘ jollies . No – he wrote in a shed , but his work will remain for ever vibrant of Wales at that time and at that place he immortalised forever.
    In Wales where is anyone writing in English who can hold a candle to him ?
    For that matter I must ask where in recent Welsh literature is the equivalent voice of a James Joyce ,or Seamus Heaney ?
    I rest my case. G.K.B.

  12. To Chris Jones:

    Frightfully sorry to disabuse you, but I have done rather well out of London and its assorted crooks.

    And not one penny from the taxpayer!

    As for my being ‘afraid’, now you really are being silly. I have had umpteen columns, articles, radio broadcasts etc etc published and aired in and on the national media about the Welsh arts scene .

    Indeed, it was my evidence that brought the ACW up before a PAC on the 13th October.


  13. JR.Well done and a ‘partial’ exposure of the current state of welsh ‘governance’,or the lack of it!!. The creation of WAG was partially based on the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ as practiced by the hated TORIES in Westminster. Some of us who have a long memory of the Labour Party in Wales,and fear/concern about welsh nationalism were opposed to creation of WAG and have our concerns have fully come to pass. We have created a small,but very well entitled minority and all living very well of public subsidy either directly from WAG and place men/women,or BBC Wales/S4C. It takes people like you and others to delve into well hidden information to put matters into the open,as the current a)politicians,b)media are fully signed up to welshification in all its guises. I agree that the western world,and in particular Europe is well passed its sell by date in economic ‘power’ and consequently there is going to be greater need to ensure the biggest ‘bang for our buck’ as possible,rather than supporting useless ART through public funding that is only appreciated by one or two people. There needs to open access to all public funding bodies so that welsh taxpayers,and even others in n the UK to ensure real accountability,rather than the nod and wink in Cardiff Bay. Why is none of this never exposed by BBC Wales,other than it is now the ‘problem’,rather than the ‘solution’ as it has been captured by a small group who seem to be doing extremely well in these difficult times. Lets UKIP thrive as they are the only hope for the ordinary ‘plebs’ like myself in this very unhappy land!!.

  14. Howell Morgan and Julian Ruck need not worry. UKIP are on the march, and very soon we’ll all be “Little Englanders’, with no public funding for anything arty or farty. Jolly times ahead!

  15. Mein gott the IWA publishes an article by Julian Ruck
    Are they short of articles and completely stuck?
    Is it a distraction from the Plaid conference-ruck?
    But it’s good to see Julian breakin’ his IWA duck
    Demanding Welsh grants give us more bangs per buck
    Have the usual suspects been pushing their luck?
    If Julian is right we should go raking through muck
    Shame it’s about art though ‘cos I don’t give a fuck…

    Best I can do without a grant…

  16. I once told a good friend who was in the book trade that he could write a)War and Peace,b) Death in the Afternoon but with a name like Dai Thomas he wouldn’t get a penny from ARTS bodies in Wales as he has the wrong name and smacks of being anglo welsh,however if he changed his name to Dafydd ap Tomos a few episodes for Pobol y Cwm would bring fortune and fame!!.Looks like I was right and will check where ‘tax payers’ money is going ASAP.

  17. I wonder if any of the correspondents can help me out with one or two facts so I can make my mind up about all the above. What is the total expenditure on ‘the arts’ by the public sector in Wales? How much of that total goes on WNO, the college of music and drama etc, the National Museum or Library and how much goes on book subsidy or literary events? How has expenditure changed over time? Confucius said: he who has knowledge but does not think is nothing; he who thinks but has no knowledge is in a dangerous state.

  18. To R Tredwyn:
    The ACW has a yearly budget of £34M.
    Literature Wales £1M pa
    Welsh Books Council £4.5M pa – subsidises mainly Welsh publishers.
    Where the other bodies you mention are concerned, I have every confidence that their own websites will be able to answer your questions re exact amounts of State funding.

    Julian Ruck

  19. You probably have to be my age to have read C. Northcote Parkinson. He predicted with great accuracy that the amount of time spent debating an item of public expenditure was usually in inverse proportion to the size of the expenditure. Everyone understands, and has an opinion about, small numbers.

  20. It seems a little spurious to suggest that because Dylan Thomas or miner’s institute libraries didn’t need subsidies, contemporary culture shouldn’t either. The author here is attentive to the very recent and still much-debated austerity in public finances, but seems to wilfully ignore the more established historical development of ‘mass culture’, moderated by the market mechanism and actively seeking to undermine art as cultural product. Remember that it was a truly great, globally renowned Welsh writer – Raymond Williams – that gave the world the most compelling analysis to date of the role of implicit power dynamics in literature.

    To presume that materially-independent culture could flourish in an era where culture is more dominated than it ever has been by vested interests, and where the market mechanism is recognised not as an economic principle as much as a fact of human existence, seems naive in the extreme.

  21. Great article once again. When are others going to stand up and be counted though? We need more voices to tell the people what these scroungers are doing, more people to realise that our taxes are being given to these useless nobodies who couldn’t write a decent book (or sell one) if they’re lives depended on it.

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