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Not everyone can be a winner in Arts Council of Wales’ drive to share the benefits of culture more widely, says Nick Capaldi.

A photo of a boy and a girl painting a small item
A 'Let's Celebrate! Creative learning through the arts' event.

Wales News Service

In a few days’ time the Arts Council of Wales opens applications for its Investment Review 2020 – the five-yearly review of our portfolio of annually funded organisations.

Our focus is clear and straightforward, rooted in the corporate plan 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 the full range of the Welsh public than is currently the case. In a country that has enshrined in law its commitment to the wellbeing of future generations for all its citizens, the Arts Council’s work can only be strengthened by ensuring that our own priorities are aligned and complementary.

We’re at a moment in time. From the outset, nearly 75 years ago, public funding for the arts has had many purposes: to increase choice, to subsidise costs for audiences and participants, to encourage innovation and risk-taking, and to activities that the commercial sector either wouldn’t or couldn’t support. But it’s now also about people’s quality of life and their entitlement to enjoy fully the activities that their taxes are paying for.

Our choices might have challenging implications for some of the organisations that we currently fund

Connecting more widely

We want to be absolutely clear – reaching out and connecting more widely are the key headlines of this Investment Review. This doesn’t mean that we surrender our commitment to supporting high quality arts. We’ll always attach the utmost importance to work that not only inspires and entertains but which stretches and challenges us too.

Through the public funding entrusted to us we want to enable artists to use their best imagination, their most inquisitive curiosity, their most compelling voices, to create exciting and engaging work. It’s about Art that’s conceived with passion and imagination – Art that’s well-crafted and produced, and reaches out, strikes a chord and touches us.   

That spine-tingling moment, once felt, is never forgotten. Such experiences matter and should be the proper concern of any Arts Council worth its name.

So we’re steadfast in our belief that quality matters. But we must expand our field of vision to see the different places where these qualities might exist. Increasing audiences for the traditionally subsidised arts is an entirely legitimate goal, especially if that work is strong. However, we might also have to accept that some artforms are simply not of interest to everyone. Traditional definitions of culture, creativity and the arts can sometimes themselves be barriers to engagement. If we want more people in Wales to be able to choose to make the arts a part of their lives, we must be prepared to find new ways of connecting through a wider acknowledgement of different forms of creative activity.

Efforts to increase and widen audiences have been at the heart of the Arts Council of Wales’ funding policies for decades. Yet evidence clearly shows that the benefits of public investment in the arts remain stubbornly limited to a small proportion of the population (usually the wealthiest, better-educated and least ethnically diverse).

This isn’t fair and has to change.

Unpopular choices

We aspire to a society that embraces equality and celebrates difference, wherever it’s found in race, gender, sexuality, age, language, disability or affluence. After all, a generous, fair-minded and tolerant society is instinctively inclusive and values and respects the creativity of all its citizens.

High performing organisations readily recognise that issues of equality, diversity and social justice run through every aspect of what they do – in their governance, their staffing and in the programmes of work they deliver. Such organisations reach more widely because they know that these aren’t just matters of fairness and inclusivity, but the behaviours that enable work to connect with audiences in authentic and meaningful ways.

We want to see the Arts Portfolio Wales that emerges from this Investment Review demonstrating leadership in all these matters. We know it’s a big ‘ask’, even for the Arts Council itself, but the fact that real change is needed is, we believe, inarguable. It won’t be easy. As we’ve all been told, there’s no magic money tree and we go into this Investment Review with no expectation of additional money to cushion the change.

The Arts Council’s responsibility will be to make ‘good’ choices when the final outcomes are announced in October. Because if we want Wales to be fair, prosperous and confident, improving the quality of life of its people in all of the country’s communities, then we must make the choices that enable this to happen – hard choices; potentially unpopular choices; choices that might have challenging implications for some of the organisations that we currently fund. But in the end, it cannot be right that the benefits of the publicly funded arts are so narrowly enjoyed. That is what we need to put right.

Nick Capaldi is Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales.

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Photo of Nick Capaldi