NWR Issue 49

A new deal for arts and culture?

A new deal for arts and culture?

The report and recommendations of the National Assembly's inquiry into arts and culture policy in Wales will not be published until September. But it is already clear that the Post-16 Education Committee, after months of gathering verbal and written submissions from individual artists and representative organisations, intends calling for major restructuring. It looks like affecting, above all, the Arts Council of Wales.

There have been several years of standstill budgets, an internal re-organisation which abolished discrete departments for individual arts and set art forms against each other, the granting of a greater share of resources to arts flagships like Theatre Clwyd, Welsh National Opera and the planned Millennium Centre at the expense of smaller professional clients, and some messy policy U-turns after protests, all of which have left the Arts Council with few friends.

Acknowledging dissatisfaction was widespread, the committee chairman, Cynog Dafis declared as the inquiry stage drew to a close that he was confident that they would "open a new chapter in cultural policy".

Tom Middlehurst, the Cabinet Secretary who will be responsible for taking the committee's recommendations to Cabinet for decision, talked of "a void at the national level which needs to be filled" and of there being "a huge opportunity for the Arts Council to reinvent itself and base itself very firmly on the Assembly's priorities".

He suggested that in future, the assembly would set the agenda, while the arts council would be responsible for delivery.

Writers and artists may feel they have reason to be troubled by such an arrangement. It would mean a departure from the arms-length principle which has guided funding of the arts ever since the setting up of the British Arts Council at the end of the second world war. There would no longer be a "Chinese wall" of worthies appointed for their knowledge of, and interest in, the arts, ostensibly exercising their judgement free from political bias or influence, standing between elected politicians voting money for the arts and the ultimate beneficiaries, writers and artists and their organisations.

But arguably the arms-length principle doesn't really work in Wales. The small middle-class pool from which ACW appointees are drawn is one in which everybody tends to know everybody else, and has always been susceptible to behind-the-scenes pressures.

Far better, in our new Welsh democracy, that differences over arts and culture policy are made transparent and debated openly, and that politicians are no longer able to use an ACW as an excuse for not taking responsibility for strategic policy and funding decisions.

To fill Tom Middlehurst's perceived "void", Ceri Sherlock, specially-appointed advisor to the committee, tabled a proposal for a "Cultural Consortium - Creu Cymru", a pro-active agency to deliver Assembly policy on culture, the arts, and creative industries, grouping all quangos with an interest in culture, from the Arts Council to the Tourist Board, chaired by the responsible Assembly Secretary and answerable to the appropriate National Assembly committee.

But this looks suspiciously like a quango of quangos - the non-elected bodies running much of Wales which advocates of devolution said would be committed to the bonfire once the National Assembly was up and running.

More sensible would be an arts and culture policy driven directly by an Assembly committee made up of AMs in partnership with a co-opted mix of specialists i.e. present Arts Council's appointed members. The latter would have the freedom to speak as members of the committee, but not to vote.

Such a change may prove too radical for the Assembly to stomach. But having raised expectations of a new deal for arts and culture in Wales, it would be very damaging for the devolution project as a whole if the Assembly new policy turned out to be ineffectual and lost the respect of the arts community in Wales.


previous editorial: New Welsh Review No. 50
next editorial: Representing Wales


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