In Conversation with Ken Skates AM

In Conversation with Ken Skates AM

(original artwork by Dean Lewis)

Ken Skates is a Labour Assembly Member and Welsh Government Deputy Minister for Culture and Sport. A graduate of Cambridge University and former newspaper journalist, Skates is a keen participant in the arts; enjoying writing and drawing when time allows. Now a little over seven months into his tenure as Minister, here he speaks candidly to Cerith Mathias about the challenges facing the arts sector in Wales; and the personal reasons behind his aspiration to open the arts out for all – and to encourage communities and individuals across Wales to embrace artistic endeavour.

Cerith Mathias: In your speech at the Arts Council of Wales conference in February you said that you wanted to see Wales become the most creative nation in Europe, if not the world. How do you propose to achieve that?

Ken Skates: We’re starting from a very strong base – culture is so rich in Wales and that richness is spread across all demographics as well. From mining communities that have a rich tradition of song to the steelwork communities where there is also a rich tradition of community artistic endeavour, we’re in a position we can take advantage of. However, the big challenge is increasing active participation in the arts. For example, I went to the Tenovus annual concert in Wrexham, it was based around music and drama and there were various local groups that were performing. One was a youth drop-in centre’s drama group, another was a Tenovus charity choir and it’s a remarkable example of how a charity uses song to bring people together in order to overcome adversity, bereavement or struggle. They do it in a way that brings people together for a really productive reason. They are good examples of forms of participation in the arts I don’t think are being recognised enough, and perhaps we need to shift our attention to funding those sort of early steps on the escalator of artistic activity.

The Arts Council are conducting their review at the moment and I’ve announced that there will be a new policy on the arts, which I’m hoping many people and organisations will feed into. What I want to see is a greater focus on increasing the number of people who are actively participating and not just consuming artistic goods; not just sitting in the audience but actually singing, acting, dancing, writing or painting.

You mention the Tenovus choir as an example of the arts aiding recovery from illness or trauma – in your speech to the Arts Council you touched upon the fact that you found the arts beneficial to yourself when dealing with mental illness. Is participation in the arts for this reason something you’re keen to promote?

It’s probably worth me talking from a personal perspective on my view of the benefits of both arts and sport to give you an indication of where I’m coming from. I was the first person in my family to do A Levels, never mind about go to university, but when I got to university it was a completely different environment to that which I was used to. It’s a difficult transition age as it is, 18 to 21, you’re going from dependence to independence from effectively childhood to adulthood and within the context and pressures of going to university it led me to very quickly struggle in that environment and I struggled badly. I wasn’t diagnosed for years, it was basically a form of generalised anxiety disorder which physiologically is very similar to clinical depression. So, at university the problem that I found was that I didn’t know what it was that I had, all I knew is that I was constantly on edge and anxious and living in fear – not of anything in particular but of everything. It reached the point where I was really fearful that the only way to end whatever it was that was causing me to struggle so much was to effectively end life. But I never reached that point. What helped me through university, particularly in the first two years was drama. I auditioned for loads of productions and I was in at least 2 productions every term. Part of the problem was my identity and my belief in my competence was shattered and it was only through drama that I was able to maintain a belief that I was competent in something. It was through drama that I was able to get a sense of belonging and camaraderie with like-minded people.

I think it was Oscar Wilde who said ‘Give a man a mask and you’ll find the true person’, and certainly I found that when I was rehearsing for a play or reading lines for a play or performing in a play I was at my most comfortable. To a great extent drama carried me through the first 2 years. The third year, the finals year was intense naturally because it was finals year, and I still hadn’t been diagnosed. I’d been prescribed by the doctor in Cambridge a form of anti-depressant which treats general anxiety disorder, he had written to my doctor up in North Wales to say I advise you to prescribe that, but my doctor in North Wales refused saying I was too young to possibly be depressed or anxious. So the indications were there of what was wrong. In the third year, because of the demands of being in the final year I didn’t perform in as many productions but what I did was take on more art and design, so I was constantly writing and constantly drawing and painting. Again it was only through being able to express what’s going on in your head either through the written word, or in my case it was often drawing, that I was able to really just relax and find an identity. During that most difficult time, that transition period, which is always tough for young people, drama and drawing largely sustained me. The arts can provide an invaluable mechanism for people to break out of isolation and for people to express their inner feelings. The arts provides a critical way of being able to get out whatever you’re feeling and to make good of it. I’m a big believer in the health and wellbeing benefits of the arts alongside of course sport. If I wasn’t active in the arts and sport, I think I’d be a complete mess.

Do you consider this to be your ideal job in that case?

It is the perfect job. I’ve not been able to act at all since I’ve been an Assembly Member because I spend half my time in Cardiff and half my time in my constituency (in North Wales) so you can’t exactly rehearse for a play, so I’ve not had many opportunities in that regard. I tend to focus what little spare time I have these days on physical activity and on writing.

So you still write and draw?

I still draw. I design a lot – houses and golf courses. When I was young, I did at one point want to be a golf course designer. When I’ve seen a particularly nice plot of land, I tend to go on Google satellite and design a golf course how I’d imagine one to be on a particular landscape. I also still write a bit. Actually, at university I wrote two and a half children’s books.

Are there any plans for them to see the light of day?

No, I don’t think so.

Returning to writing is not a future ambition then?

I’d love to at one point, but I wrote the books not as a view to get published but as an outlet. Back then we didn’t really have many opportunities to get together with other writers of fiction, which is why I spent my time with other people participating in dramas.

So widening access to and participation in the arts is a key priority of yours, yet many arts organisations and venues are facing funding cuts and the prospect of closure. How do you propose not only to maintain current provision but to grow the sector also?

We have some really bold and exciting opportunities to be able to considerably increase the number of people who are active in the arts. There’s no doubt about this, it will require additional money and in these financially strained times that means we’re going to have to do more to win a fairer share of funding from lottery programmes from trusts and foundations and this is a scenario that I’m particularly keen to look at with my other colleagues in Government, but it also means taking advantage of new digital technologies for things like crowdfunding.

In your speech to the Arts Council you talked about the need to explore alternative revenue streams for the arts, other than Government grants. Do you see initiatives like crowdfunding, which, given the current financial climate seem to be on the increase in the arts, as a positive thing?

I’m a huge supporter of crowdfunding. Essentially because every pound that you raise through crowdfunding, or whatever form of fundraising means that another pound of money from Government could be used to bring another artistic enterprise into flow. If we are going to increase the number of arts organisations and therefore people who are active in the arts, we’re going to have to increase the resources that fund them and I do see crowdfunding as a method of achieving that. We know that globally crowdfunding in 2009 was worth about 90 million dollars and in 2013 1.5 billion dollars, so the trajectory is incredibly steep in terms of how much money is being raised. And a large chunk of that is going to the arts, and I want to make sure that it’s the arts in Wales that are benefiting. We’ve already seen a number of organisations that have successfully raised money through crowdfunding, and I commend them. Some have said to me ‘it would be easier if we could just get the money from government.’ It would be much easier, there’s no doubt about that, but equally as I’ve said, for every pound that is raised through crowdfunding, it means that a pound of Arts Council money can go towards widening the menu of opportunities available to people and increasing the amount of people who are active in the arts. So I see alternative methods of funding as being critical in widening access and increasing participation.

How healthy is the arts sector currently?

I think we’ve got a strong base through education. But what has traditionally happened with the political economy that has grown since the late 1970s, not just in Wales or the UK but in the Western world, what we’ve seen is the devaluation of the arts and other forms of expression and creativity that do not have an immediate commercial value. If you compare that with what’s happened in education of late in Wales, which is the announcement of the new curriculum, with a stronger emphasis on the power of creativity and on physical activity to maintain young people in education and also to fuel innovation, I think we are in a unique position to be able to really crack the problem we’ve had of isolation and inactivity, whether it be creative inactivity or physical inactivity, and really set Wales on the path of becoming the most creative and active nation in Europe. There are opportunities here and if we look wider across Government programmes, such as Culture and Poverty we really could see a step change in terms of activity levels.

What emphasis does the Welsh Government place on the value of the arts to society in general? Is there now a more joined-up approach when formulating policy? You touched upon initiatives such as Culture and Poverty and Arts in Education.

If you tackle poverty what you do is eliminate the disadvantage that people have in terms of accessing and participating in the arts. So tackling poverty is the platform upon which I’m trying to get Wales to become more creative and physically active, because you’re not necessarily going to truly tackle poverty unless people are more creative and more active. So there’s a virtuous circle there in investing heavily in those areas, in those communities who are not at the moment particularly physically active, who are not particularly active in the arts.

What kinds of organisations and initiatives across Wales at the moment do you think are examples of best practice in engaging those not traditionally involved with the arts?

The arts in Wales have so many organisations that are to be commended for the way that they don’t just offer opportunities for people to consume arts within a venue, they actually go out and get people active themselves. National Theatre Wales is one, they’ve been astonishing and they continue to be. There’s a political and social edge to work they do, and I really like that; I really admire it. But equally the work that’s done by Clwyd Theatre Cymru, their outreach work. They’re going into Communities First areas (the Welsh government’s flagship anti-poverty scheme) they are engaging with people who traditionally have never been engaged in drama and that’s proving to be incredibly beneficial. There are also organisations like Juke Box Collective a great example of a young, artistic organisation that engages with young people who are creative, who are artistic but traditionally perhaps Hip Hop and dance may not have been associated with the arts. And we have the Urdd, their ability to reach out to communities is quite special. We have examples of best practice, the key is ensuring that we learn lessons from them and disseminate that best practice as best we can. So we do see best practice everywhere. I just want to see it in every single community now and opportunities for people every day to be able to be creative.

To ensure arts for all not just a select few?

Yes, arts for everyone. The martini policy – everyone, anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

I’m glad you made a Bond reference, of sorts, as I was coming to that. You let your disappointment be known with the Assembly Commission’s decision not to allow scenes for the forthcoming Bond movie to be filmed in the Senedd Chamber, saying on twitter that your ‘…dream of Bond coming to Wales would’ve come true.’ As Minister, what are you doing to attract big productions to Wales?  Do you see Pinewood, for example, putting Wales on the movie map?

Yes. I’ve met a number of people from around the world who are involved in TV and film and Wales is proving to be an incredibly attractive place to invest. The creative industries are the fastest growing of all Government priority sectors, growing faster in Wales than any part of the UK bar London, one of the fastest growing areas anywhere in Europe. In terms of the creative economy there’s no doubt that we are really punching above our weight and attracting more and more investment into Wales. But at the same time what we’re able to do is develop the talent within Wales, whether it be on screen, post-production, all of the technical skills that are required we are seeing greater investment in. I think in years to come, we’ll see more educational institutions be able to meet the demands of what the industry requires.

Finally, as Culture Minister, what will be your stamp on the arts in Wales?

A dramatic increase in the number of people who are active in the arts from Communities First cluster areas – those 52 areas that represent 25% of the population whom we are trying to help out of poverty. I believe that the arts are a means of being able to empower people. My lasting legacy would be to see those 52 often disengaged communities empowered through the arts to be ambitious and to contribute to the nation.