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Monday, November 08, 2004

Arts and artists

I do not buy into the notion that abolishing Arts Council Wales (ACW) and bringing its functions into the Welsh Assembly is the end of the artistic world as we know it. Those who believe that it is want to have their cake and eat it. They want to receive public money to sponsor their art but they apparently do not want to be held accountable for how they spend it.

There is no evidence that the administration of arts spending by a department of the Assembly will squash creativity or even bring artists under government control. Artists have always accepted that there are limits on their artistry by virtue of the fact that they are dependent on patronage. Only the exceptional amongst them have been able to break free of that restraint. Nevertheless, no responsible politician is going to go against the advice of his or her civil servants and refuse to fund a worthwhile project. This has been proved time and time again across Wales, where municipal theatres have resisted public pressure to show very controversial performances. Equally, Council-owned galleries have displayed highly charged exhibits, such as the crucifixion of Dylan Thomas in Swansea, despite public protest.

If those who believe that the Assembly is about to abolish Arts Council Wales think that this body is above political influence then they are very naive indeed. Not only does the Assembly appoint Arts Council Wales' Chair and its board, but Ministers have a major informal say on the appointment of its Chief Executive and control its overall budget. It is only a small step from that situation to removing the appearance of independence. The artistic director of Music Theatre Wales has got a valid point that is worth considering. He said:

"Of course the arm's length principle is a concern, but how often is it really going to make a difference, day to day? Up until about a year ago we felt that the quality of decision making and leadership in Arts Council Wales was very poor. We lost confidence in them; many decisions felt arbitrary, especially in theatre, where knives were cutting through things without consideration or consultation. Accusations of incompetence were rightly made." He said that he hoped the arts could have a "stronger voice" in government if the Arts Council were stripped away, finding a place at the centre of power "to argue for the arts in Wales, for the genuinely contemporary Welsh arts, not the old leeks and choirs. After all, the assembly wants to play its part fully on the European stage."

He welcomed the notion that the arts should be more accountable to the Welsh people. "It's hard to argue why the arts should be any different from health and education."

None of this is an argument for taking the step of bringing ACW into the Assembly of course, that case has still to be made. I just wish that those who are propagating these scare stories would make a better case. If, for example, they stopped dissing the politicians and defending the status quo, and concentrated instead on the case for a more vibrant interaction in decision-making between artists and the public, through a reformed and independent body, I might have more sympathy.

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