Rethinking the Arts: Covid-19 and Beyond

Covid-19 will dramatically affect the Arts which means we need to make sure that we build bridges with our communities, writes Graeme Farrow.

At a recent IWA Rethinking Wales online session I was asked to reflect with other panel members on the following questions. What follows is a transcript.

  • What are the challenges you face as a result of covid-19? 
  • What are the opportunities? What is perhaps now possible which was not possible before? 
  • What is an idea or action that can be implemented or taken to ensure cultural venues not only survive but thrive?

Wales Millennium Centre could be shut until Spring next year. 

That’s a whole year without audiences. A whole year without income.

Financially, the cost of that is £20m this year.

Then there will be further losses the following year because we are already seeing that unfold.

The real cost is human. For our staff, for people who come here to be entertained, for young people who come here to create and learn, for communities who come here to talk, or to share food and to celebrate their culture with us, for some volunteers who are feeling lonely now.

I don’t want to talk about how venues can survive and thrive but about how an ecology can change, survive and thrive. 

The opportunity is to listen and to engage in new conversations about how we can rebuild on stronger, more inclusive, and resilient foundations. Foundations have been shaken and walls that seemed solid are crumbling. And there were walls that weren’t physical that have crumbled too and that is a good thing because some of these walls keep some people out.

We need to spend time and to invest in how we make things happen – in processes and methods. In thoughtful, deep work over time.

This means involving communities, artists, young people in how we do things rather than as conscripts into what we have already decided to do.

The evaluation of our work is based too much on metrics. This stifles progress. Can all of our funding reports be written by the people that use our buildings and also people who work with us outside of our buildings? 

Policy is great, Wales is good at that. But delivery is much harder, Wales is not always so good at that.

Can we rely on testimonials and not excel spreadsheets? What lies in the hearts and minds of our audiences? What do audiences who don’t currently come think of us? Most importantly, what does this look like years from now? It is not good enough to track small incremental change over time with quotas and so on. 

There are ideas that can be implemented such as adopting methods of co-constructed work with young people and communities, or participatory budgeting for example, both of which we have adopted at Wales Millennium Centre. These methods give people agency and joy and a stake in what we do. 

If this was your home and you’d invited some people you’d only just met round for dinner and one of your guests said, ‘didn’t you know I was vegan?’. It’s better sometimes to let people choose the menu and come in and use the kitchen and for us to set the table and do the dishes.

We are working currently, while we are shut, with young people to design creative spaces within our building that would be run by them, for them.

The arts will only be a doorstep issue when we are on your doorstep and inviting you to participate and have an opinion and build with us.

And we’re still going to put on Les Mis, but when the big shows come back we will continue to spend the profits with artists, communities and young people.

There is also, of course, a digital opportunity but it is very hard to recreate the powerful intimacy of theatre online, unless there is something within the experience that is rich, connected, and live. We have to find a better way of achieving that on digital platforms and that means creating art that is live and interactive online for its own sake, on gaming platforms for example. 

A really exciting opportunity is to make connections and work which breaks down geographical barriers and cultures with artists and audiences all over the world.

Policy is great, Wales is good at that. But delivery is much harder, Wales is not always so good at that. In the rebuilding process, for our society, I really would like to see culture play a more integral role at the heart of it as enshrined in the goals of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and indeed the new curriculum.  

How can we keep hold of the role artists and creative organisations have played through the pandemic – mutual aid, food parcels, online education packages, time capsules created with young people, providing ways for communities to keep in touch?

I worked in Ireland for 20 years, most recently in Derry on the City of Culture 2013 programme. One of the metrics the Council and government had for us was to reduce unemployment by (I think it was) 1%. No pressure. I hear stories trickle through – of how for example a young person involved in violence and who took part in a programme is now a community leader. 7 years later. Measure that.

In Belfast, in Derry, or Londonderry, or Northern Ireland, or the North or Ireland, or the 6 counties, or Ulster, the ground was shaking all of the time. 

When I came to Wales, I sort of breathed a sigh of relief. And my wife and I have reflected on what it feels like to live in a place not dealing with the trauma of conflict, where people are not attacking each other, not with baseball bats, bombs and bullets. 

Wales is a great place, we love it here.

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But the ground was shaking here too. All was not OK. And in the last few months there have been lots of calls to tear down the walls of institutions and pot shots directed at each other. Some of it has been needed, urgent and welcome and some of it unpleasant.

 The discourse recently has been too binary, and probably too dominated by the commercial side of the sector. The arts is a broad church and a complex ecology so can we support each other to rebuild from here together please and not attack each other? 

And take time to reflect thoughtfully together. That can be uncomfortable – to question, to doubt, to resist the stirrings of self-interest, instant opinions and information overload, but to favour systematic, slow and purposeful enquiry. We may never have a better time in that respect. And as Raymond Williams said, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”.

I received this message from someone in Tiger Bay or Butetown (there are a couple of names for that place too):

“I was against the Opera House and resented WMC being built while I wasn’t even entitled to consider myself an artist… 

Fast forward to a couple of years ago. I was on my way to County Hall with my granddaughter aged 3 and as we went past the Centre she said “look! that’s where we do Carnival!”

At first I was pleased as punch that Carnival was already imprinted… but then I realised…

The Centre is also imprinted in her mind as part of her community … not something that’s been built over something else. And it’s now just as much as a landmark in our history as anything …  

Of course we still want more of everything but I’ve figured out that the best way forward is to go forward …”

We don’t have enough stories like this, Wales Millennium Centre and others can certainly do better. I want people to consider this place not as a ‘venue’ but as a home.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash

Graeme Farrow is Artistic Director at the Wales Millennium Centre.

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