This article is published in the current edition of The New Welsh Review. (Thanks to Marcus Romer of Pilot Theatre for the reminder of Jim Cartwright’s Road.)
“Can we not have before again, can we not?”
So pleads Valerie the abused wife in Jim Cartwright’s 1986 play “Road.” Sat on her hard kitchen chair and dressed in a scruffy nightie, the character traverses disgust and despair while reflecting on the negation of all her hopes through her union to a thieving alcoholic.
“Always scrimping and scraping. He just takes the Giro and does what he wants with it.”
In 1986 – seven years along the road of neo-liberalism – this nostalgic dream of a transcendent return to the past had the potential to move and involve, even as it was romantic, yearning and child-like.
A quarter of a century later, as we all wake up to the worst hangover in living memory and survey the mess on our doorstep caused by a bingeing addiction to risk and reckless profit, there is plenty of scope for anger, if not nostalgia. However, this time there can be no return to the past; the new reality is that there is no “before” anymore.
It is not just because of the current programme of government cuts. In Wales, the notion of “a golden age” in arts spending is laughable in any case. While England may recoil at the loss of £19 million pounds for its Creative Partnerships – a 50% reduction to its groundbreaking partnership between education and the arts – Wales never had it in the first place. The intended cutbacks to England’s arts organisations are a drop in the ocean compared to their Welsh counterparts. Indeed, some organisations in Wales could survive for years on budgets the size of the cuts being meted out in England. The sad fact is that, by most standards, the arts in Wales have been consistently under-funded and, for that reason alone, the Arts Council of Wales’ recent Investment Review was a prescient attempt to address the issue of sustainability among its revenue clients.
There is a deeper reason also. Over the last thirty years, arts organisations have been steered by government to accommodate business-like skills of entrepreneurialism and efficiency. The business world has been held up as an inspirational model to the arts as a means of maximising public investment and undercutting reliance on subsidy as the monopolising source of income. Organisations have developed under a bureaucratic model that is now embedded widely. In order to receive funding, it became necessary for applicants to fulfil a series of benchmarks such as being formally constituted, having charitable status and with policies on equal opportunities and health and safety. The logical consequence of this was that organisations became increasingly focussed on administration and operation. These functions grew and developed to the point where they became part of a semi-conscious scenario of permanence.
Mike Bradwell and Mark Ravenhill – both respectively from the theatre world – have been loud advocates of this view and critical of a system that has arisen whereby organisations sustain themselves at the expense of artists and their work. Ravenhill is quick to point out that this is not because anyone involved behaved with anything other than good intentions and good faith, but because historically the arts community has turned its back on idealism – and indeed utopianism – in favour of a professionalism that is geared towards business, government and the market. Even then, however, by comparison with German playhouses where subsidy is much higher, there are four times fewer administrative staff than in playhouses here. Gradually, it would seem we have evolved a system whereby it is more sustainable to have a career in the arts with designer glasses, an i-phone and a marketing degree than it is to actually practise anything artistic. The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, is reputed to currently employ over 90 people in its marketing department. “Two planks and a passion” has given way to “Two tweets and a resume”.
Now the model that this was all inspired by has imploded and nearly bankrupted itself. Ironically, greed has manufactured and been in the grip of its own form of imaginative fantasy. When major banks are, effectively, nationalised, traditional argument in the arts around such issues as sustainability, value and community suddenly seem far less esoteric than they once did. But the unprecedented conditions in the economy and the parallel collapse in the political sphere are merely symptomatic of the dizzying level of change that is taking place at a global level and is driven by digital technology. As Graham Leicester has argued, “This is not only an age of change but a change of age, a period of cultural transformation.”
While sympathising with the individuals directly affected, it is still hard to argue against the Arts Council of Wales’ principle in its Transformation and Renewal document of discriminating in favour of “front-line services” as opposed to protecting the agencies and providers it has hitherto supported. Some people have suffered nevertheless and south-east Wales has been particularly badly affected where theatres and theatre companies have lost their revenue funding. The success of the ACW’s aspiration to address this through new measures and schemes, such as its new Touring Fund, will be key to assuaging anxieties. However, beyond funding arrangements, there is also an overwhelming need for a change in culture, mindset and approach.
Personally, it has been frustrating to be part of a community in Wales fully conscious of an oncoming tsunami and singularly lacking in a vocal response to it – let alone an argument that is coherent and unified. The individual, fragmented nature of the artistic community in Wales has the usual underlying reasons – personality, geography, language etc. But, until recently, it has also served some individual causes well to be able to play the Assembly off against ACW and pursue a lone path. While some defy a collaborative approach, others prefer, understandably, that their views are filtered through representative bodies such as the Writers Guild, Equity and The Welsh Association for The Performing Arts. However, these bodies, while hard-working, are small with a duplication of voices.
Additionally, arts organisations all too often forget that they are not synonymous with the arts overall. One of the problems is that individual artists – who are arguably the most significant element in this – feel disenfranchised from such discussions and powerless to shape events.
It seems self-evident to me that the arts community – individual artists, organisations and other interested parties – needs to act now to find a way to engage and collaborate across traditional boundaries. Of course, social networking offers obvious opportunities to address this. One area in which National Theatre Wales has been exemplary is in its use of digital media to engage with people across Wales and to help them feel included in its work. It should not be beyond the realm of possibility that a unified, advocatory body could coalesce around such an approach.
Whatever the means, the arts world needs to quickly find a way to engage with itself and collectively articulate its concerns, because, as Geraint Talfan Davies has argued, “There have been times when the sector has seemed apolitical, which is strange for people that make much of the role of the arts in challenging society.” For example, it is indicative that critical dissension was only heard in the wake of the Arts Council’s Investment Review. Before its findings were announced, it felt like there was a widespread conviction that something needed to be done, as long as it was done to someone else. Too often, it seems to me that there is a reactive, ad hoc victimhood about the arts community in Wales, rather than a proactive, engaged approach to wider events.
However, this is a broader issue than the ability to have frank and constructive discussion or find means to advocate a set of interests. The culture that prevails in arts organisations, as I have argued, tends towards the traditional and the bureaucratic. While I remain sceptical about the way in which organisations find ways to justify their own existence ahead of the interests of artists they are there to facilitate, it is not an argument against the ability to facilitate itself. It is an argument to change how we operate and it is ironic that closely allied areas are offering the most progressive lessons in how to adapt to new circumstances.
Instead of rigid bureaucratic structures, there are signs in the wider creative industries of a much more collaborative environment where flexible and responsive structures are temporarily created in order to progress specific projects. The arts in Wales need to learn from this – as young people’s theatre company – London Bubble – managed to. In 2008, it found itself three months from closure after Arts Council England withdrew its revenue grant. To its huge credit, it remained focussed on its mission, but completely restructured itself. It jettisoned its traditional model employing a number of permanent staff performing individual functions in silos and instead employed producers on temporary contracts to manage its programmes.
While it is retrograde that employment terms and conditions are so detrimentally affected, it is a poor argument to the freelance artists – actors, musicians, painters – who have lived like this for years and wait months for payment for work without pension provision or social security and while juggling a variety of paid and unpaid commitments. Of course, while there are risks involved through the loss of stability and confidence, there is also additional opportunity for pause, reflection, new challenge, expression and growth. In general, these conditions should feel natural to people working in the arts, who find they gravitate towards the collaborative and developmental.
That said, for creative people, we have been lamentably uncreative about the ways in which we facilitate art. It is and should not be about simply cutting back and driving down costs. Eighteen months ago a serious discussion about protecting arts activity through the merging of “back-office” functions was a deadening prospect – even for me as I advocated it. Now that the London-based National Theatre is engaged in meaningful discussion with other theatres about finding ways to share marketing, human resources and other functions to protect productions and activity, how long will it be before other organisations have to wake up to such possibilities? The reality is that greater collaboration and innovation is not an option anymore, it is a necessity as we find ways to become more agile, facilitative and activist within limited resources And if we cannot be creative in times of difficulty and need, what right have we to the word?
The challenge of the moment is not just one for the arts community either. The Arts Council of Wales has been in the uncommon position of receiving praise for its handling of its Investment Review. While the praise was not unalloyed and while there is an inevitable backlash against some of the individual decisions, there seems to be a broad – if grudging – acceptance of the outcome, which is astonishing given that it has reduced its portfolio of revenue funded clients by almost a third. One person recounted to me the feeling that ACW had been “very clever” in their handling of the review, as if transparency and openness was an indication of sinister Machiavellianism on its part, rather than the hallmark of good practice.
Indeed, it was an important achievement for ACW to have avoided the kind of fiasco that has haunted them in recent years. However, it would be a mistake to soften on some of the principles of openness and transparency which characterised the review. For example, it is a shame that there is no mechanism for the individual assessments that were fundamental to the decision-making to be published online, in the way that Annual Review Meetings now are. Sensitive, commercial information can be protected and confidentiality can still be preserved. Freedom of information should be a boon to modern governance, rather than the obstacle that it is sometimes viewed as being.
Another area of concern is in the somewhat corporate and cumbersome way in which ACW has tried to enter into a dialogue with the arts community. Admittedly, it is challenging for an arms length body with a traditional, bureaucratic style to reinvent itself as accessible and networked in the Facebook age. But the forum established for the Investment Review was a disaster with minimal comment and a welter of pornographic spamming despite the heavy-handed moderation. Open meetings have not been distinguished by a high-degree of engaged dialogue and there is an ongoing suspicion that there is still insufficient artform expertise within the body of ACW despite the intelligence and honest commitment of some individuals.
It is certainly not that artform officers lack insight, passion and professionalism in their field. Neither do they wholly lack the language and capacity to truly talk to the people they need to work with. However, one would also like to say – as The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner does of Arts Council England – that there are “some genuinely imaginative and ingenious people within its ranks.” The lack of permeability and movement between ACW and the world it advocates and funds is a problem. ACE greatly benefits from the free movement of people from within its ranks to the wider world and occasionally back again. It has the effect of re-energising the body with fresh ideas, new approaches and deeper insight. While some ACW officers have personal links to artforms that they maintain alongside their work and care deeply about the arts as a whole, there is still insufficient circulation of ideas and experience.
No-one can be under any illusion about the challenges ahead. There is the terrible prospect – indeed likelihood – that the 15% savings made in the Investment Review aimed at sustaining and supplementing a new healthier, more robust portfolio will be lost to further cuts. As a devolved nation, we are in a politically nuanced environment that we have never seen before. Cuts inflicted by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government at UK level will be enacted – in the short-term at least – by a Labour-Plaid Assembly government. There will be a direct impact for funds administered by ACW and indirect impact from the cuts by local authorities. Would it be helpful then to hark back to a golden age that never was? Bellow into the wind that this is the time for a massive investment in the arts at a point when there is unanimity between the political parties on cuts to the deficit?
Personally, I stand alongside Alan Lane, the Artistic Director of theatre company Slung Low:
There will only be what survives. If what looks at the moment like an inevitable stream of cuts becomes a reality then there will be nothing left but the absolutely determined, the absolutely relentless, the absolutely exciting, the absolutely open.
Now is the time for daring, for hoop shots and visionary leadership, for bloody mindedness and adventure. It is the time for those who can make miracles out of nothing, with sheer fury and energy. It is the time for cockroaches.
Limping along like victims will not endear us to a besieged public. In all the mess and shit that is to come, it is our role to excite them, enrage them, play with and for them.
I do not believe that poverty makes better work. But I think that whatever we have left – once our industry, along with plenty of others, is finished being ideologically mugged and financially harangued – is what we’ve got. And from that we must make everything. Better than we did before.
Because when they’ve finished cutting support to the young, the poor, the old and the ill; when they’ve finished giving what might have been all of ours to the chosen few; once they’ve got rid of the hand up and the stepping stones to a better life; all that might be left to many is the desire to go out of an evening – to a story, to an adventure, to an experience, to try in their own way to make sense of the world, and use the things we created to do that; to cry, laugh, imagine and remember.
And we should absolutely be ready for them when they do.
November 3rd, 2010.