Gary Raymond looks back at Wales in 2023, evaluating the drama between ACW and NTW, the strange behaviour of the Books Council of Wales, and how the 10% cuts coming over the hill could mean an end to professionalism of the arts in Wales.
Over a period of fifty-odd years, Gore Vidal wrote an end of year reflective essay he called his “State of the Union”. It was partly an alternative take on the annual Presidential address to the American citizenry, and partly, as he explained in his 1975 iteration, a bringing together of all the conversations that he had been having that year “across the republic”. No doubt Vidal would have found little to titillate his competing appetites for grandeur and gossip in the goings on in Wales, and he may have even found irony in the appropriation of the term “union” for a country with as disparate a set of outlooks and attitudes as this one, but it seems that, in what is more than likely to be Wales Arts Review’s last Christmas, there is a lesson to be taken from the state of Wales’s cultural landscape that can be rolled out into an understanding of the wider health of the country.
The conversations I have been having across the (would-be) republic this year have moved from bedraggled optimism, (as the movers and shakers of the arts of Wales awaited the decisions of the Arts Council of Wales’s Investment Review), to bedraggled pragmatism in light of the announcements in September, to bedraggled pessimism as the Arts Council announced 10% cuts on the horizon, handed down from the Welsh Government (who find the country £900million in the hole).
On Front Row recently, I finished airing my views about the ongoing battle between our Arts Council (ACW) and our English language national theatre (NTW) by saying that the arts in Wales was as close to semi-professional now as you can be and still hold your head up high. It was not a prepared remark, but often the off-the-cuff is the truest. I stand by it now stronger than I did when I said it. The artists and arts facilitators of Wales are facing a period of managed decline, with venues running on fumes, indy publishers running on less than that even, and people leaving the creative professions in droves. The arts in Wales is on the precipice, and the Welsh Government has just prodded it in the back. The sound of the arts in Wales this time next year may just be a few voices weakly calling for help from the bottom of a canyon.
But that is next year as the cuts haven’t come yet, and the Welsh Government, who have always regarded “the arts” with something of a sour face, has yet to force the Arts Council and the Books Council to scorch those rolling hills (but scorched they will be, make no bones about it).
2023 has had its own stories, ones that some in the towers of power are no doubt looking forward to being eclipsed by the burnings on the horizon. What is fast becoming the most delicious story for the dispassionate onlooker (of which there are precisely zero) is the debacle involving ACW and NTW. They have been glaring at each other with gritted teeth across an expensive tax-payer-funded buffet lunch for months now, politely disagreeing. There’s a feeling in the (would-be) republic that such politeness has worn thin enough to be barely worthy of the name. In fact, the face-off is now at such an intriguing stage that there is a danger of this being the only decent drama National Theatre Wales has been involved in for nigh-on a decade.
But hang on… let’s try and lay this out clearly for anyone coming in at the interval.
In September, ACW announced their decisions of the Investment Review, which dictates which arts organisations in Wales can depend on year-on-year funding for the next four or five years. It’s a big deal. National Theatre Wales, which has received millions from this system since its creation in 2009, had its funding cut by 100%. We can dance the dance in regard to options for the company, but this decision by ACW will probably mean NTW closes down in 2024. If we are being honest with ourselves, nobody can pretend otherwise.
After the announcements in the Investment Review, an appeals process kicked in, run by an independent panel invited by ACW. The decisions of the appeals panel would be advisory and ACW were not at any point under an obligation to enact the decisions of that panel. 15 organisations submitted appeals, and the independent panel decided only one of those had a case and invited that solitary organisation through to a hearing. Guess which organisation that was? Yes… god, you’re good… it was National Theatre Wales.
On December 7th, NTW put out a statement that said, “The independent panel has found that Arts Council Wales has not followed its own procedures in fairly and transparently assessing our application. Our application is now referred back to the board of Arts Council Wales to be reassessed. We look forward to having a constructive conversation with Arts Council Wales as soon as possible about ways forward.”
I have no idea what, if any, “constructive conversations” went on, but on December 18th the Arts Council of Wales put out a further statement that said this:
National Theatre Wales (NTW) submitted an appeal against the Arts Council of Wales’ (ACW) decision to discontinue its funding of NTW, that decision having been made as part of the ACW’s Investment Review 2023.
At its meeting on the 13th of December, and following the full appeal hearing of the 29th November, Council considered and discussed, in detail, the report and recommendations of the Independent Panel, appointed to consider the appeal. As part of this process, Council carefully considered the recommendations of the Panel both in relation to NTW’s appeal and the Investment Review generally.
A detailed response has been sent to NTW and, in accordance with our commitment to transparency throughout the Investment Review, we provide below a summary of Council’s decision.
NTW submitted a very detailed appeal, which was shared with both the Panel and ACW Officers in accordance with our published Appeals Process. In response, ACW made an equally detailed submission, which directly addressed each of the points of appeal. This was also shared with NTW prior to the hearing. The Panel’s report noted that, in its deliberation, it had not been possible to address all elements of what it referred to as a ‘detailed and complex’ appeal, and had therefore focused its report on what it described as ‘relatively high level factors’.
In accordance with our published Appeals Process, paragraph 7.3, the Panel, whose role is advisory (and does not have the power to substitute its own decision in respect of NTW’s funding application), made a recommendation to the Chair of Council that NTW’s funding application should be reconsidered and outlined the grounds on which its recommendation was made.
As also required by the Appeals Process, Council gave due consideration to the matters raised by the Panel in its report, as well as considering other relevant information, such as ACW’s published Investment Review Guidance, which The Panel described as an ‘exemplary document’. Council agreed unanimously that there were no material factors to warrant review and reassessment of the application and therefore decided to uphold its original decision not to offer NTW multi-year funding in the Investment Review 2023. In reaching this decision, Council placed particular weight on the Investment Review Guidance and that the assessment process described had been followed in full. Our detailed response to NTW sets out Council’s specific reasons for reaching this decision.
This concludes our Appeals Process.
I, for one, was deeply deeply surprised that the decision of the independent appeals panel, which ACW had decided way back in the mists of time would have no binding authority over their own decisions, was rejected by ACW. Deeply, profoundly surprised. (If only ACW had been in charge of the country when the result of the advisory Brexit referendum was returned in 2016).
NTW made a statement on the 19th of December (which you can read here in full). It’s a slightly more spiky riposte than previous ones, and promises a further statement in January. The Great War of the Statements is a long way from over, I feel.
I have long been a vociferous critic of National Theatre Wales. I believe that quite some time ago a root-and-branch overhauling of the organisation was in order to realign it with its original mission-statement of… well… creating work. As a theatre company, it has been an apparition for years. But I think few people would have liked to see it exorcised so absolutely. What now seems possible is that ACW, perhaps in an ideological mist that has meant English language theatre in this country has been neglected for some time, has messed up their chance to both reinvigorate NTW and to get rid of it altogether. ACW took a swing, and they fudged it. A legal challenge from NTW could be on the cards, which would greatly weaken ACW, and wouldn’t be a good look for NTW either. And that worst of all possible worlds? A legally victorious NTW, emboldened in its righteousness, exists in the same haunting cycle of its previous incarnation — that of the world’s only theatre-phobic national theatre — in a world where our Arts Council is so humiliated and hobbled that Creative Wales, Welsh Government’s arts-funding bro-squad, is left to take over the whole of the arts in Wales. No more arms-length, not even in name. Arts funding directly aligned with Welsh government policy. The worst of all possible worlds.
Which brings us to that other bonceless gallus domesticus, The Books Council of Wales, which has recently announced its decisions (come to by an independent panel – that great saviour of Welsh transparency) in the funding review of English language magazines in Wales. I have written at length about why we decided Wales Arts Review would not apply for our core-funding (and, subsequently, cease-publishing in 2024), and it seems our lack of faith in the process and those running it was entirely justified.
The Books Council revealed that while cutting all funding to two of Wales’ longest running cultural periodicals in Planet and New Welsh Review (and thus undoubtedly condemning them to the annals of history), that those decisions meant something in the region of £90,000 went unallocated. To the astonishment of many who paid attention, it was then announced, with what seemed like a column of straight faces, that a new magazine would be established in 2024 with the leftover cash. At some point in 2024 BCW will invite people to apply for this whopping great heap of cash, a heap much bigger than what either Wales Arts Review (had we sent our tired old gladiators forth into the pits), Planet, or New Welsh Review been entitled to apply for because of the arbitrary cap imposed by BCW on application limits in 2023.
We know little about the details of the tender at present – a panel (no less) will decide on these things in February, we are told – but we do know that one of the main asks will be a business model promising self-sustainability. As this was not a requirement of the Books Council’s recent investment decisions, it seems an unfair requirement of the new kids on the block given that, one must assume, those successful applicants in 2023, such as Nation.Cymru, Poetry Wales, and the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ membership magazine Agenda, were not required to prove their worth in this way. And I will eat my hat if any of the Welsh language magazines funded in 2022 were required to argue this point, either. I am no legal expert, but I know some, and this seems shaky ground for the Books Council. (I wonder if they’ve even thought of this).
So we find ourselves in the slightly odd position of the Books Council refusing to consult with Wales Arts Review about our concerns of the funding model, then effectively closing down Planet and New Welsh Review, and then asking for a brand new magazine to be pitched to them in 2024 that will be funded with the sort of money Wales Arts Review, Planet, and New Welsh Review have been begging from the Books Council for over a decade so that we could all fulfil our detailed, costed, and watertight business models as publishers. For decades the Books Council starved us all and now we are dead, they are offering a bountiful feast to anyone who wishes to come and picnic on our graves.
I can only talk for Wales Arts Review, but £90,000 a year would have meant we could have been self-sustaining by the end of our second decade, and we could have created a vibrant and professionalised sector of writers and cultural commentators in the meantime. We could have told the Books Council this if they’d agreed to open up a dialogue in the way we proposed over the summer. We could have referred them to our previous business plans submitted to them as part of previous funding applications that spell this out. But instead, some poor bastards will work their socks off in the next six months to fight for this funding without any guarantee their work will be rewarded in the scrap of applications to an organisation that has just thrown decades of experience, expertise, talent, passion, and vision, onto the scrapheap in the guise of the teams at WAR, Planet, and NWR.
So, we are looking at a new era. The new magazine will be approved by Welsh Government, with money given to the Books Council by Creative Wales (on the Board of which sits the CEO of the Books Council of Wales – but maybe conflicts of interest is a discussion for another time). Out with the old editors, in with the old way of doing things. No more arms-length funding of the arts, no more magazines and websites where articles like this can be published.
Gary Raymond is the executive editor of Wales Arts Review, and is also a novelist, non-fiction author, playwright, and broadcaster.