Geraint Talfan Davies says the coming months are crucial for the arts in Wales.
The next two months are crucial for the future of the arts in Wales, as both the Welsh Government and the 22 Welsh local authorities finalise their budgets for the next financial year.
While the initial focus each year is usually on the Arts Council of Wales’ budget – a proposed 4.7% cut of £1.5m for 2016-17, following a £1m cut in 2015-16, as well as similar cut to the National Museum – much less attention is paid to cuts in local authority funding. These are certain to be even more severe, as however small the sums look in the context of the total spend of any one council, they can do a disproportionate amount of damage to small arts organisations and the cultural ecology of a community.
Several councils have been trying to offload theatres – Newport, Cardiff and Rhondda Cynon Taff – or cut back budgets sharply – Theatr Clwyd – and music services for schools have been left struggling for an existence at the very time that the Welsh Government is launching a plan for Creative Learning through the arts in our schools. Right hand and left hand come to mind.
The arts are always going to be vulnerable as austerity bites into the flesh of local government. For councils, arts and culture have always been a discretionary rather than statutory spend. It is the easy cut to make, despite the fact that the money saved rarely amounts to a sum that makes a significant difference to other areas of expenditure.
These issues are coming into particularly sharp focus in the capital city where a storm is brewing over Cardiff Council’s plans to cut £700,000 from its culture budget, having already axed its funding to the Sherman Theatre last year and put the operation of both the New Theatre and St. David’s Hall out to tender.
One can but hope that in the tendering process someone with a sense of history will remember that the building of St. David’s Hall was part funded by the Welsh Office on the basis that it would be Wales’s national concert hall – hence the choice of name. It is but one of many instances in which, on the cultural front, Cardiff has benefited hugely from Welsh national investment. The Council has to do its bit too.
However, in discussing the council’s proposed budget, use of the word ‘cuts’ is in some cases a misnomer, as in the case of the two big Cardiff-based international prizes – Artes Mundi, for the visual arts, and the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World – what is planned is a total withdrawal of the council’s funding. The same fate is proposed for the already tiny £68,000 budget for small arts grants.
It would, of course, be foolish to deny the intensity of the pressure on local authority budgets, but it would be equally foolish to ignore the contribution of the arts to the economic and social well-being of a capital city and a country – economic competitiveness, community cohesion, educational attainment. The arts are society’s soul. Let’s not forget that it was during the period of greatest austerity – between 1945 and 1950 – that the Arts Councils were created in Britain, and that Welsh National Opera, the Llangollen International Eisteddfod and the Edinburgh Festival were launched. In fact, WNO was registered as a company during the war, only a month after the battle of El Alamein.
Faced with the current budget proposals the arts sector in the city has begun to mobilise through a branch of ‘What Next?’, a UK-wide network of people and organisations who believe passionately in the importance of the arts and culture to the health and quality of our society. The heads of national arts organisations have also written an open letter to all local authorities, concerned that proposed cuts can be fatal to projects and organisations that have taken years or decades to mature, and expressing the belief that “access to the arts is a right for all, not a choice for privileged few”.
In Cardiff there is as much perplexity as there is pain, since ironies pile up on one another. Last year the National Assembly passed the Well-being of future generations (Wales) Act in which “a Wales of vibrant culture” is one of the seven well-being goals. Similarly, Cardiff Council has a ‘liveability’ strategy where one of eight ambitions is that the city should be a great place to live, work and play. In 2014 the Council launched a ‘cultural conversation’ with the sector to encourage partnership and dialogue, shortly before making its senior culture officer redundant. It also joined the Core Cities network, linking with major cities in England, and was asked to lead on – you’ve guessed it – culture.
Last but by no means least, the council has an aspiration – one which should be applauded – to bid for the title of European Capital of Culture that next comes to the UK in 2023. A long way away, you may think. But the best estimate of those with an ear to the ground is that UK cities will have to submit their expressions of interest in the autumn of this year and the UK Government will decide on which cities to shortlist before the end of 2017.
In that context the current budget proposals for Cardiff look to be a shot through both feet for, knowing the way judging panels for these culture competitions work, I can tell you that if a city wants to win it has to be able to demonstrate a coherent long term strategy for culture, and not just exciting plans for one year.
In the budget settlement for Welsh local authorities Cardiff did rather better than was expected when it set out its budget plans. The cut to its budget was £12m less than expected. Of course, there will be many claims on that £12m, but some part of it should be used to buy time to discuss a coherent cultural strategy not just with the cultural sector but also with the other nine local authorities in the city region. If it wants to be a European Capital of Culture it will win as a city region or not at all.
Could culture be just as important as the proposed Metro rail plan in binding the city region together, as has happened in Tyneside, Liverpool and Manchester ? This is a question that should be on the agenda for the city region’s new transitional board.
It was George Osborne in his autumn statement who said that the importance of the creative industries to the UK’s economy was such that cuts to the arts were ‘a false economy’. That may stick in the craw of many on the left in Wales, but it would be deeply depressing if those who rightly pride themselves on being the successors of self-educated, cultured working class leaders were bested in this instance by a privately educated Conservative Chancellor.