Siân Gwenllian is the deputy leader of Plaid Cymru and a member of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee in the Senedd. Here she argues that Wales’s arts sector is not being looked after in its time of direst need, and that the future of its very existence is hanging by a thread.
The arts in Wales touch each and every one of us and every community in Wales. Wales is a melting pot of talent. We are a nation where culture is at the heart of our way of life. How would the past few months have been if it hadn’t been for the arts? Without the entertainment and the opportunity to reflect through the arts and to come together through culture – whilst remaining apart? We owe the Arts so much. But we could soon lose it forever.
This isn’t an exaggeration. The future of the Arts and Culture sector in Wales is hanging by a thread – with a lifeline far from sight. I’ve heard sobering stories only the past week from people across the Arts sector whose livelihoods have suffered significantly as a result of the pandemic – some who have lost over a year and a half’s worth of work, are unable to access enough financial support to pay rent, and have had to sell their home or move in with family.
These stories were behind Plaid Cymru’s motivation of bringing the issue directly to the floor of our Senedd – the national parliament of Wales – this week. We wanted a guarantee from the Welsh Government that they would promote and protect various crucial elements of the arts – including providing the freelance community with more equal, diverse, and resilient roles. Our Government must realise and value the importance the arts holds in terms of the economy, for society, and for its innate worth. Sadly though, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
The ‘Covid-19 reconstruction: challenges and priorities’, published by the Counsel General Jeremy Miles, bares little mention of culture; culture isn’t considered as a priority. Society, the economy, the environment, health, social care and well-being, political engagement and digital technology—those are the six specific areas of priority.
It’s disappointing and frustrating that this area which is central to the redevelopment of the nation post COVID doesn’t seem to matter to the current Welsh Government. In Mr Miles’ document there is little to nothing around the safeguarding of the sector, it has simply been forgotten. This is despite the brilliant examples of utilising the arts in COVID recovery that we witness in other countries, like across the sea in Ireland, or in New Zealand where work has been given to hundreds of artists in the nation’s schools as part of their recovery programmes, and there are many different funds and proposals in place.
In Wales, there is no such vision from the Government. In speaking to stakeholders across Wales, this message is reiterated. There is a lack of leadership and a lack of communication with the sector as a whole, including with the unions representing creative people.
Plaid Cymru wants to change this.
The top-down model that we have here in Wales, with the Arts Council given funding to administer, with that trickling down is not the Plaid Cymru vision; rather, we put the emphasis on building from the bottom up and feeding our institutions. The arts are one ecology in Wales, with the various elements reinforcing and strengthening each other. Without freelance workers, the system would collapse; without the institutions, there wouldn’t be projects or infrastructure to support artistic practitioners.
But, where is the Welsh Government’s emphasis? On attracting film companies from outside of Wales and centring them in Cardiff, rather than nurturing our inherent creativity from the bottom up.
And what about representation?
The involvement of black and people of colour must also be guaranteed in arts and cultural bodies to reach an anti-racist Wales, and the momentum from the renewed exploration of Wales’ diverse heritage recently in light of the Black Lives Matter movement must be kept up. One step towards achieving this goal would be to establish a National Museum for Black and People of Colour History and Heritage based in Tiger Bay. We must celebrate and promote the rich history the community in this area and others in Wales hold, something that certainly won’t be achieved with the proposed plans to establish a History of Military Medicine Museum in Cardiff Bay which has no connection to the community or its history.
Our cultural institutions have suffered too.
The National Library has been subject to systematic underfunding from the Welsh Government over a period of years. The recent tailored review, which has just been published, expresses major concern about the future of the National Library, noting very clearly that the current situation is not sustainable. The situation of our National Museum is very vulnerable too. Certainly, underinvestment has been notable in terms of infrastructure and maintenance of sites.
The Urdd is facing what’s been described by its chief executive as its most challenging period in its 98 years of history as a result of COVID-19. The organisation is facing a reduction of income of £14 million over the next two years. We cannot allow the Welsh Government to stand by and watch these fade into history, they are far too valuable. We cannot allow them to receive £59 million from the UK Government (albeit very late), just for £6 million to simply disappear.
The lockdown has highlighted the importance of the arts, in humanity’s efforts to make sense of the world around us, but it has also drawn attention to just how vulnerable the sector is in Wales. We need to ensure that the importance that cultural activity has for our society and our economy is realised.
Siân Gwenllian is Deputy Leader of Plaid Cymru and a member of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee.