Cultural Missive

Rhod Beard’s Cultural Missive #4: Making It Good

Once again Rhod Beard takes a sideways glance at the arts and cultural sector in Wales in his Cultural Missive #4: Making It Good.

News reaches Wales Arts Review of a white paper that’s set to become official Welsh Government arts policy ahead of the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections. The paper, provocatively titled ‘Making it Good’, is co-authored by Professor Tom Twyllo and Dr. Meg Hyphen-Jones of the Welsh Cultural Forum, the nation’s smallest think-tank. ‘The Arts Council of Wales needs a good kick up the arse,’ Twyllo writes in his customarily lucid introduction, ‘and our proposals will deliver the reforming blow.’

‘Making It Good’ outlines an ambitious vision for the future of arts funding in Wales, for decades to come, following a radical two-pronged approach:

1)  Arts funding in Wales should only be dedicated to work that is good.

2)  Arts funding in Wales should no longer be provided to fund work that is crap.

‘We acknowledge that these twin principles might appear to be self-evidently desirable in terms of broad cultural aims,’ explains Dr. Hyphen-Jones, ‘but in our previous study “Welsh Culture: Question Mark or Exclamation Mark?!” (2012) we found that Arts Council Wales was very much focused on metrics such as diversity, accessibility and bilingual provision. These matter very little to arts-consumers across Wales, who, for the most part articulate, as their primary cultural priority, a concern as to whether a particular work of art is either good or crap.’

‘Making It Good’ results from an intensive 3-year research process, which obliged its authors, and a support team of Welsh Assembly Members, to undertake a succession of exhaustive international trips to arts venues and luxury hotels across the globe. ‘People might choose to baulk at the £8m cost of its R & D phase,’ says Jane Placeman AM, a frequent flying member of the research committee, ‘but the process has enabled us to identify potentially huge savings for the Welsh taxpayer.’

These projected savings will come from initiatives to delimit the huge amount of crap that is made in Wales, while strenuous efforts will be made to ‘futureproof’ the economic viability for Welsh arts organisations and venues by encouraging arts-makers across the nation to create work that its people ‘actually give a toss about.’

Hugh Watt, Chairman of Empty Spaces, the association of Welsh arts venues, gives a cautious welcome to the bold new thinking contained in the policy document: ‘We’ve tried to grow audiences in Wales through a combined programme of weekly tweeting, ten percent discount offers in our hideously expensive cafes and youth oriented projects, such as the recent updating of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in a Merthyr roller derby. Unfortunately, these bloody kids are all too hip to transparent and futile attempts to appeal to their ADHD mind-sets.’

The new funding arrangements will slash budgets for desultory hip-hop Shakespeare workouts and other kids-focused urban outreach projects. ‘A whole industry faces decimation,’ warns Hugh Watt; ‘Education Officers, Diversity Coordinators, Access Facilitators, Cultural Sensitizers and Heads of Collaboration will be thrown on the scrapheap, just like the miners before them.’ The authors of ‘Making It Good’ point out that the negative effects of these job losses will be off-set as ‘people with actual talent’ are hired to do creative work. ‘It’s a huge sea change,’ says Watt, ‘we’re moving from a paradigm of looking out on half-empty auditoriums and wondering how the bloody hell we use lottery money to drag in scratchcard-users off the streets; to one in which we look at our bare stages and ask ourselves how do we fill them with work that is good rather than crap.’

‘Making It Good’ contains five case-studies of leading living artists from across the world, including: film and theatre director Julie Taymor, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, author Toni Morrison, singer-songwriter PJ Harvey and animator Hayoa Miyazaki. Prof. Twyllo explains that while this group of artists work in a range of fields, and in a range of cultural contexts, they all share a number of key factors that are strikingly similar:

1.  They all have talent.

2.  They each follow a unique and personal vision that can’t be replicated by a committee.

3.  They each produce work that is commonly held to be ‘good’.

4.  They each produce very little of what might be characterised as ‘crap’.

5.  Lots of people like what they do.

‘Now these five benchmarks of quality,’ adds Twyllo, ‘have to be the search criteria by which we might identify and support future generations of Welsh cultural leaders.’

Perhaps the most surprising finding to emerge from the mountain of statistical data compiled by the ‘Making It Good; team, is that Welsh speakers express an almost equal level of enthusiasm as their Anglophone compatriots when it comes to quality in the arts. Several Welsh-language artists have argued in the recent past that expectations of artistic quality in the arts had to be tempered by realism as the prospective ‘creative gene pool’ was smaller due to the size of the Welsh-speaking population in relation to the number of English-speaking Welsh. ‘We had expected Welsh-speakers to tolerate a quality-deficit in arts provision as long as the content was being delivered in the medium of Welsh,’ says Hyphen-Jones; ‘Yet it turns out that even Welsh-speakers have little tolerance for crap, even when its provided in their mother tongue.’

Bitter controversy has broken out around the question of who is to decide what is artistically ‘good’ and what is artistically ‘crap’. The policy document makes several references to ‘the role of the critical community’ in holding art-makers in Wales to the ‘highest aesthetic standards’, yet this nature of the role of critics in this new landscape remains unclear. ‘We’re certainly not advocating any provision of funding to critical organisations in Wales,’ says Prof. Twyllo; ‘We argue, quite forcibly, that the current range of unpaid bloggers, amateur dilettantes and aggressive tweeters are doing a commendable job without the Welsh taxpayer having to pay serious writers to tell them what to think.’ Gary Raymond, Senior Editor of Wales Arts Review, expressed his ‘profound disappointment’ at the decision not to place critical judgment at the heart of arts funding in Wales. ‘It’s a sad day for Welsh critics who have an important role to play in making the Welsh arts good, particularly so for me as I need to replace my boiler and badly need the cash.’

Worries about Gary’s boiler aside, arts lovers across Wales can now look forward to seeing art, in all its forms, that has been made with the principal aim of being good. The bureaucracy of mediocrity, with its box-ticking wish-lists of social engineering masquerading as artistic visions will be a thing of the past. A source close to the First Minister said that ‘Making It Good’ will ‘reposition Brand Wales as a cultural hallmark of artistic excellence within an international ideas marketplace that has previously regarded the country as the home of faux-socialist rock bands, love-spoons and sentimental nostalgia.’

Charlotte Church was unavailable for comment.


Making It Good: Key Questions for Future Funding Applications

1.  Will your proposed project be any good?

2.  What steps are you taking to ensure that your proposed work isn’t just a pile of crap?

3.  State the number of people employed by your organisation. Then state the number of people in your organisation with more than an ounce of artistic ability. Is the second number less than 50% of the first?

4.  Might the reason you’ve needed to employ someone to ‘reach out’ to your local community to ‘develop your audience’, be that you’ve hired the wrong people to work inside your building?

5.  If your organisation has a marketing department but no serious, full-time, long-term artist development programme, perhaps you might reconsider your priorities?