Nick Capaldi | Arts Council of Wales to Expand its Reach

Nick Capaldi | Arts Council of Wales to Expand its Reach

Arts Council of Wales Chief Executive, Nick Capaldi, explains why the Council wants to use its forthcoming funding review to widen the range of people enjoying and taking part in the arts.

No Arts Council wins friends by spending too much time talking about itself, but occasionally people need to know what we’re thinking. This is one of those times.

Every five years, the Arts Council of Wales decides who will be included in the portfolio of revenue‑funded arts organisations – what we call our Investment Review. We try to make the process as straightforward as we can, but we know it can be daunting both for those who are currently funded, as well as for those who’d like to be supported in the future. So, with applications invited from early March, it’s important that potential applicants are very clear about what we’re looking for.

A bit of context first.

These are challenging times for the publicly funded arts in Wales. This isn’t because people don’t care about them – the public continue to enjoy and take part in the arts in large numbers. It isn’t because the work is poor – critical acclaim and international success tells us differently. Support for the arts remains fragile because continuing economic pressures on funding are forcing uncomfortable choices about which areas of civic life are most deserving of public support.

Public funding for the arts has many purposes: to increase choice, to subsidise costs for audiences and participants, to encourage innovation and risk-taking, to invest in those activities that the commercial sector either won’t, or isn’t able to, support. It’s also about investing in people’s well‑being and their quality of life, those vital attributes that make Wales such a creative and exciting place to live, work and visit. But here’s the rub.

Arts Council of Wales CEO Nick Capaldi. (Darren Britton © WALES NEWS SERVICE)

There should be nothing mysterious or exclusive about a whole society’s right to share and participate in the fruits of its cultural achievements, especially when they’re largely funded by the taxpayer. Yet in spite of large attendances, the simple fact is that the benefits of public investment in the arts are still stubbornly limited to a small proportion of the population (usually the wealthiest, better-educated and least ethnically diverse). This has to change.

It’s why our focus for the Investment Review is rooted in the corporate plan that we published two years ago – “For the Benefit of All”. We want more people, from the widest possible backgrounds, to enjoy, take part, and work in the arts in Wales. And we want the activity that we fund, through the organisations that we support, to reach out and connect more widely across a more inclusive range of the Welsh public than is currently the case. We want to be part of a society that embraces equality and celebrates difference, wherever it’s found in race, gender, sexuality, age, language, disability or affluence: because a generous, fair‑minded and tolerant society is instinctively inclusive and values and respects the creativity of all its citizens.

The organisations that successfully navigate our Investment Review will be those who understand these things, who recognise that issues of equality, diversity and inclusion run through every aspect of what they do – in their governance, their staffing and in the programmes of work that they deliver. Such organisations reach more widely precisely because they know that these aren’t just matters of fairness and inclusivity, but the defining behaviours that enable work to connect with audiences in fair, authentic and meaningful ways.

Diversity matters. As a nation we’re defined by it – through the words and the language that we use, to the different faiths and nationalities that we welcome. We’re a bilingual nation – legally, socially, culturally, and as individuals and communities. Nothing makes Wales more distinctive than the Welsh Language. Yet modern Wales is a multi-cultural and multilingual society. But if we’re to reap the dividend of a culture that thrives on difference and diversity, we’ll need to underline that box‑ticking and lip‑service are the enemies – honesty, with tolerance and achievable aspiration, are our allies. So our Investment Review is nothing to do with quotas and compliance, but more an underpinning principle that encourages us all, the Arts Council included, to find better and more creative ways of engaging imaginatively with a wider audience.

In a post‑Brexit world we all need to broaden our vision. We need to re‑think our connections, not only amongst ourselves and our communities, but with the wider world. This has never been needed more.

The arts have always been at their best when they’ve patrolled the front line of tolerance, social justice and freedom of expression, inspiring us as global citizens to challenge discrimination, xenophobia and small‑mindedness in all its forms. After all, it’s the artist, addressing the world in its hopes and absurdities, in its changes and disruption, who has that knack of reinventing cultural expression appropriate for the times.

The arts depend on this fresh flow of new ideas, new voices. And through the public funding entrusted to us, we want to enable artists of all backgrounds and communities to use their best imagination, their most inquisitive curiosity, their most compelling voices, to create exciting and engaging work. Quality work is always important, and it can be found in different and surprising places, if only we look for it. But ultimately, it’s all about Art that’s conceived with passion and imagination – Art that’s well-crafted and produced, and which reaches out, strikes a chord and touches us. That’s what we’re here to support.

It’s a public responsibility, and public accountability is hard‑wired into the Arts Council’s organisational DNA. It’s why we take our stewardship of public funds so seriously. But it’s about more than the responsible deployment of taxpayers’ money, important though that is. It’s about enfranchisement and the right of the people of Wales to be able to experience equally, and in inclusive fashion, the best that the arts can offer.

Competitive funding processes – which, of course, the Investment Review is – obviously require the most careful and sensitive of handling. Money is tight, and increased funding will be hard to find. A down‑beat assessment perhaps, but rest assured we’ll do all we can to press for the levels of public funding that we believe the arts in Wales needs.

Regardless of the amount of funding available to us, the Investment Review process mustn’t look as though the only strategic tool we’ve deployed has been the flailing axe. Ending funding to any organisation, especially if it endangers its survival, is an inherently destructive act. Opportunity is curtailed and livelihoods are at stake.  However, unless we’re able to signal clearly through our decisions the changes that our priorities imply, we’ll be accused of lacking courage and seriousness.

In the end we want a Wales where the benefits of the arts are felt across all communities, regardless of wealth, gender, ethnicity, language or locality. We want a Wales that nurtures the well‑being and quality of life of all; a Wales that’s dynamically connected to the rest of the world through the richness of its arts and the networks that they create.

For Council, difficult choices undoubtedly lie ahead. But when the talking stops, we’re determined that the decisions we take should be bold, brave and far‑reaching. The arts in Wales – if they’re genuinely to be for all – deserve nothing less.


(Header image: Let’s Celebrate event held by Arts Council of Wales at Portland House in Cardiff. Tom Martin © WALES NEWS SERVICE)