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Recent Welsh government budget cuts have created new fears across the creative sector about the impact on our communities, writes Graeme Farrow.

Graeme Farrow in front of Wales Millennium Centre

Wales already lags behind the rest of the UK in terms of its per capita spend on the arts. With the announcement of a 10% cut, on top of years of reduced or standstill funding, Arts Council Wales’s budget has shrunk by 34% in real terms since 2010. 

This reduction is in stark contrast to recent additional investment announced of £15.8m in Scotland and £15m for cultural venues in England. 

In Wales, the pioneering Well-being of Future Generations Act, which has been lauded internationally, recognises the importance of culture in one of its seven goals. Surely it will take a very different funding model to deliver “a Wales of vibrant culture”. 

Faced with such a steep decline, our challenge is stark: How do we persuade more people that arts and culture are vital to the health and prosperity of the nation? 

Investing in innovative Welsh work

Wales Millennium Centre, one of the UK’s largest arts centres, is now in its 20th anniversary year. In its first two decades we have welcomed 30m visitors - audiences, artists, young people, communities and tourists. 

Our beautiful theatre, which has the second largest stage in Europe and 1,900 seats, is more than 80% full each year, entertaining and exciting people with musicals, opera, dance, music and more. 

Our commercial success has meant that we can invest in innovative Welsh work, make space for communities and support and train young people, as well as generate over £75m for the local economy. 

But we face significant challenges. With no increase in public funding since 2007, and with the majority of the UK’s private funders based in London, we have to ask ourselves whether Wales Millennium Centre will still be celebrating in 20 years’ time. 

Ticket sales are not enough

Costs have become exorbitant; our energy bill has more than doubled in the last couple of years despite us having reduced our consumption by 34% through initiatives like the installation of 720 solar panels on the roof. 

Inflationary wage increases are also beyond our control. In fact, from a financial perspective, I can’t think of anything that has gone down except for our public funding. 

We have done our best to build a resilient business model. Only 15% of our income is from Arts Council Wales. 2024 will probably be our highest grossing commercial year yet, helped by the indomitable Hamilton, and by our co-production with the National Theatre of Nye, featuring Michael Sheen as Welsh working-class hero Nye Bevan. 

But we know that even if we sold every seat in the house for every single show this year the net income would not be enough to meet rises in fixed costs. Selling more tickets won’t be enough for us - nor for any venue or company across the UK.

Formal education is failing young people in creative skills

Nevertheless, I still think we are in the most exciting period in the history of Wales Millennium Centre. We are making changes. We need to diversify, develop new revenue streams and new ways for people to engage with our spaces. 

Many of the challenges we face are not limited to our sector; they are the world’s challenges, and they require creative solutions and mindsets. We will have to take risks because we cannot afford not to. 

We asked local young people how we could support them to find their creative voices. One of the first responses was: “Just make space for us and trust us.” We heard how there are fewer and fewer safe spaces for young people to simply hang out in person, as opposed to online. 

Young people know the value of creative skills they don’t find in the classroom. Many feel formal education is failing them in this regard. So we are turning an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool, that used to be kitchens and print storage, into a suite of new creative studios for screen, music, performance and radio – to be run by young people for young people, with our trust and support. 

Reimagining the future

We are also developing the way we work with our content. As the only UK theatre to have a space dedicated to XR (extended reality) programming, we are excited to be the Welsh lead for Immersive Arts, a £6m UK-wide project that will involve more than 200 artists and organisations exploring the potential of virtual, augmented and mixed realities technology. 

We want to provide opportunities for future generations to expand their horizons and imagine the world they want to create. The paradox we face is the need to be and do more, with less. It is not a choice; failing to do more leaves us in the business of simply managing decline.

At 20, we aren’t ready to exit the rebellious teenage phase just yet. We want this iconic public building to be a creative home for everyone. We have lately been tearing down walls, literal and metaphorical. 

Arts and culture should occupy a central place because they are essential to imagine the future. We need to generate more income and provide more experiences that bring people together - opportunities to learn, grow, connect, and fuel our future. Wales needs to be more creative, like never before. 

Graeme Farrow is Creative and Artistic Director at Wales Millenium Centre.
@theCentre | @graeme_farrow

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