NWR Issue 66

Devolution or Dissolution?

Devolution or Dissolution?

By some sad irony, the First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan, chose to announce sweeping changes to arts funding in Wales just a few days after the celebratory opening of the Wales Millennium Centre. While WMC's programme will be mainstream and its activities Cardiff-based, such an important focus for arts activity cannot fail to have a ripple effect on the rest of Wales.

The importance of the Centre is as much symbolic as anything else: the fact that it has even come into existence shows (both to the people of Wales and to the rest of the world) that the arts matter in Wales, and that those who hold the purse strings believe they matter too. But even while the last firework sent a flare into the sky over Cardiff Bay, Wales's politicians were busy stoking the bonfire of the quangos just a few yards away at the National Assembly.

On Tuesday 30 November, Rhodri Morgan announced a whole swathe of radical reforms to the operation of the Welsh quangos, from the Welsh Language Board, which will be absorbed entirely into the Assembly Government, to the Arts Council of Wales, which will see six national companies - Welsh National Opera, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Academi, Diversions Dance and Theatr Genedlaethol - taken under the direct jurisdiction of the National Assembly. ACW will, according to Rhodri Morgan, retain an 'advisory role' with regard to these companies. The Assembly also intends to 'redefine the relationship between the Welsh Assembly Government and ACW by locating all strategic planning and policy functions, including research and evaluation, in the Assembly Government'. These changes will be implemented 'as soon as [is] practicable', and the new grant-making arrangements will take effect in 2006/7.

Perhaps a fuller policy justification will follow, but at the moment it is very difficult to see why the Assembly has decided to splinter arts provision in Wales in this way, thereby creating what is effectively a two-tiered approach to funding: the 'big six' will receive their money directly from the Assembly, while the remaining 100+ will continue to be funded by ACW. The notion that the Assembly can take on strategic planning for the arts as a whole also seems strange, despite their proposal to create a Culture Board which will include representation for ACW and other key players such as the Welsh Books Council. Taking theatre as an example: currently all theatre activity in Wales is funded by the Arts Council, which means that ACW oversees the funding of both a major national mainstream company and, say, a groundbreaking experimental performance artist like Eddie Ladd. This means that strategic planning as well as direct funding of theatre in Wales is currently based on good, sound knowledge at an operational level of the entire theatre ecology in Wales. A report such as the recent Boyden report on English-language theatre in Wales - although it has its detractors as well as its supporters - can only be commissioned, considered and acted upon, it seems to me, by an agency which has direct operational knowledge of all the companies and performers in the field. I don't see how the Culture Department of the National Assembly can hope to fulfil an all-encompassing strategic function effectively while theatre funding beyond Clwyd Theatr Cymru and Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru remains with the Arts Council.

This begs the question of course, of why the Assembly has chosen to take control of some but not all companies from the Arts Council. Is it because they are interested in flagships as opposed to the arts community and artistic endeavour as a whole, including experimental, highly challenging work? Or is it because legally, due to the Royal Charter under which ACW was originally founded, the Assembly was not in a position to take more than 'the big six'? If the latter is the case, it seems a dubious foundation for the ongoing artistic and cultural development of Wales; a political statement on the part of an Assembly interested in flexing its muscles rather than in the very complex set of accountabilities involved in the funding of the arts across the board. The establishment of a Culture Board is of course to be welcomed, but to my mind it would have supplied an important addition to current arrangements rather than a satisfactory replacement.

As for literature, what will the transfer of Academi, Wales's national literature promotion agency, from ACW to the National Assembly mean for Wales's writers (and readers)? Peter Finch, Academi's Chief Executive, says that it's 'upsetting that the Arts Council of Wales should be thrown into a state of turmoil. ACW has had a chequered past, but its present is a good one, and Academi regrets the damage that this will do to them. However, the Minister [Alun Pugh, Minister for Culture, Welsh Language and Sport] has a good track record in supporting literature - for example, he has earmarked money for the new Dylan Thomas Prize and also for the Welsh writing in English classics reprints series.'

This is true, of course, but it nevertheless represents a wanton abandonment of the arm's length policy which is more usual where arts funding is concerned. (I am not one to look over Offa's Dyke and suggest that we ape the Arts Council of England, but this is one case in which I think it would be beneficial.) Political exigencies which take precedence in the run-up to elections, or, indeed, the election of a different administration, could have disastrous consequences for those bodies and companies which will now be funded by the Assembly. Conversely, the Assembly may decide that the 'big six' deserve more funding at the expense of the variety of smaller companies, groups and individuals that produce art across the spectrum. The dangerously close proximity of art and politics is one which has an unhappy history in Europe, and I'm surprised that an undeniably immature political institution such as the Assembly has not thought twice before shoehorning the arts into a funding situation whereby they will become irreversibly entrenched in the political process in Wales.

Francesca Rhydderch is a Member of the Arts Council of Wales: the views expressed in this editorial are personal and do not reflect her position within ACW.


previous editorial: Out of the Flux
next editorial: 'Alf and 'Alf - The poetics of diversity


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