With Brexit looming on the horizon, Gary Raymond calls for a public debate on the future of public arts funding in Wales.
Last week I was invited on to a panel to discuss the future of the arts in Wales. My role was very much to outline what it is we have to look forward to in the next ten years. I was invited as a cultural critic, and was in the company of some major figures in the strategising and movements of Welsh culture at the moment. The mood was largely positive. Swansea has a fighting chance of becoming the UK’s city of culture in 2021. Wales’ global brand has never been more recognisable in the wake of the football team’s exploits last summer. Apart from my daily dose of excellent creative work from Wales that I am lucky enough to witness from my privileged position as a critic, I have also just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe, where the standard of work on display from the Wales in Edinburgh programme was superb – eclectic and superb. So in one universe, when it comes to the future, we have much to be excited about. Brilliant people are bursting with brilliant work.
But there is another universe. The one in which we are currently living.
It is becoming worryingly apparent in the circles I move in (or more accurately, dip in and out of), that Brexit is the most talked about elephant in the room since Hannibal came over the Alps and rode into the Forum. There is a mass delusion of the British people that is proving a curious paradox, in that we know it’s going to be bad, yet there is still some niggling feeling that everything will be okay. The political class will come to its senses and stop this train ride to hell. America will impeach Trump. Bake Off will go back to the Beeb. Somehow we will be fine, sense will prevail, the march of progress will resume, and tweeting about lies and injustices will eventually do the trick. But what if… just what if… the inevitable happens, and the UK leaves the EU?
Amidst the positivity of that panel I was on was a Welsh government operative – sat next to me, in fact – who is on the team that is negotiating the Brexit divorce. (A nice chap, I must presume he voted to remain, despite his job now). He talked apologetically, and with a humble, low tone. And at one point, in his first few sentences, he mentioned the £720 million a year that comes to Wales from the EU that will stop on March 29th 2019. This is just one strand of finance Wales will have to find from elsewhere. Am I being too pessimistic to suggest that this will lead to the end of public funding of the arts in Wales?
The Welsh Assembly’s committee for Culture, Welsh Language and Communications recently announced an inquiry into non-public funding of the arts in Wales, and most of the public reactions seemed to be focussing on the age-old idea that the political classes in Wales have been forever searching for ways to pull the rug from under the creative industries, these grey suits in dark towers scratching away at their expenses forms by candlelight, plotting to destroy the careers of every poet who ever bellowed “Fuck da Man” at an open mic. The reality, however, is that the committee is one of the few bodies in Wales openly appearing to prepare for the day coming when public funding for the arts in Wales is over.
The most likely version of the future is that no amount of creative thinking or corporate partnerships will save the funding of the arts in Wales, but artists will continue to create, just as nothing will save Britain after Brexit, but Britain itself will continue to exist. I was recently introduced to the creative ecomony of India, a country with almost no public funding of art. Almost all art – theatre in particular – is created and curated by people with relatively substantial personal wealth. What the Indian government does fund is traditional conservative art forms, normally in enormous purpose-built quasi-Soviet halls such as the NCPA in Mumbai. So perhaps the Wales Millennium Centre might survive, but good luck to the rest of you.
Wales does not boast enough private patrons to plug the gap, as happens in India, and organisations invariably fight hard to attract dribbles of corporate interest. There seem to be no other ideas floating around at the moment. I’m waiting for somebody to suggest asking Tata for help.
The arts in Wales, without public funding, would be nothing less than obliterated. Funding bodies, venues, production companies, publishers, galleries, and museums, all gone without the core funding they receive from a Welsh government heavily subsidised by various EU initiatives. This is the most likely set of circumstances in the aftermath of the UK leaving the EU in 2019.
Of course, nothing is impossible, but what simply must happen is this conversation needs to be happening out in the public space, and not whispered behind wrists at drinks receptions. What happens to the arts in Wales after Brexit should be the number one debate happening in the creative industries in Wales right now, and it should be lively, candid and in the open. I for one would like to continue living and working in a country where brilliant people are bursting with brilliant work. But the clock is ticking.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, poet, critic, and editor of Wales Arts Review.