Wednesday 13 February 2013

Assembly Arts Participation Inquiry

                                               The arts are for everyone. An Assembly inquiry recently
                                                looked at arts participation in Wales in a time of cuts.

The Assembly's Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee recently reported back on an inquiry into arts participation in Wales.

There were 8 recommendations in total, summarised as :
  • The Welsh Government should create an action plan that should identify areas of inadequate provision, and marginalised groups, while increasing participation.
  • The Arts Council for Wales should review its funding policies, including providing arts organisations with information on alternative funding.
  • The Arts Council for Wales should form a strategy to get extra funding from businesses.
The need for an inquiry

The arts (presumably meaning : theatre, musical groups, dance, creative writing etc.) are often seen as "low hanging fruit" during times of austerity. When times are good, funding's usually buoyant as people feel good about themselves and want to express it. When times are bad, it results in difficult choices - local and Welsh governments included.

That becomes more acute when various "disadvantaged groups" are taken into consideration. For these people, some form of arts participation may be the only structured social activity any of them get involved in.

What are the barriers to arts participation?

Do schools take the arts seriously enough?
(Pic : BBC)
Transport in rural areas – Those in rural areas, without arts venues nearby, may have to travel long distances to see/participate in arts activities from areas poorly served by public transport. Some vulnerable adults – i.e. those with learning difficulties or the elderly – may be uncomfortable about travelling long distances at night.

Gaps in provision – The groups highlighted are : the disabled, older people, the young and people living in rural areas (in particular mid & west Wales). Disabled people, for example, may need specialist provisions and would be affected by budget cuts to "accessibility". It's noted that Welsh-speakers and those from minority ethnic backgrounds tend to participate the arts proportionately more than other groups.

Deprivation and costs – Some arts activities are going to be relatively expensive to participate in. One dance group said that Communities First no longer had sufficient funds to buy services from them. It's said many arts companies "charge what they like" instead of charging concessionary fees.

Education/Schools programmes
– There've been significant cutbacks here. Theatre Gwent estimated up to 20,000 pupils in their area may have been "denied access to Theatre in Education programmes." One organisation commented that the education system "doesn't value the arts enough." Presumably this extends to local authority schools music programmes too.

Facilities & Professionalism – It's said not enough is made of schools as arts venues. Blaenau Gwent Council note that, despite people there actively trying to get funding to participate in the arts, they've had trouble getting arts professionals to travel to the Valleys. This is pure conjecture, but – in Blaenau Gwent's case - could that be a legacy of the 2010 Eisteddfod about to go pop?

What the Welsh Government and Arts Council for Wales (ACW) can do

The Welsh Government's "Programme of Government" had several commitments to increasing arts participation via the body responsible – the Arts Council of Wales.

There's said to be a "general lack of awareness" with regard the relationship and responsibilities shared between organisations. Some cite the fact that funding decisions were not the responsibility of the minister in charge – Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) – as "disgraceful". Other groups felt it was correct, as it would prevent the Welsh Government being dragged into individual cases.

Most respondents were, however, happy with the "arms length" principle of the ACW, and simply want more scrutiny and transparency. As usual with these things, there's more calls for a "joined up approach" as well as greater participation by arts organisations on the various boards/panels that make these decisions. They also want more "networking" between various organisations (amateur, voluntary and professional).

There are calls for greater professionalism, perhaps linked to the networking calls above. For example an amateur arts organisation could shadow a professional one in some way. Voluntary arts organisations are said to be "very active in deprived areas", but the "standard/quality of work is often poor."

Many respondents weren't aware of any equalities duties, and some of them appear to be exempt or don't fall under that umbrella. Some arts organisations were against increasing this element as it would just add bureaucracy while not really changing participation levels.

Funding issues

All the main funding bodies (ACW, WLGA etc.) say art will continue to be made regardless of funding, but cutbacks would inevitably have an impact. Arts organisations say that supply is insufficient to meet demand, and although budget issues aren't having an effect in participation levels now, they might have a long-term impact.

There's a mixed-response to targeted funding, with some organisations worried they might have to turn away people who didn't match the groups being targeted. Targeting funding at "NEETS" in particular is cited as drawing funding away from other groups. It's said that targeted funding does have a positive impact in deprived areas.

There's a split in opinion on short-term grants versus long-term funding, a slight majority of arts organisations preferring long-term funding. Blaenau Gwent Council say too little is known about smaller pots of money, and propose some sort of arts equivalent to Sport Wales' "Community Chest". Other organisations say not enough's known about alternative finance – presumably things like sponsorship, charitable donations and private investment.

Competition for funding has increased, meaning it's harder to secure long-term funding. That's not just because of budget cutbacks, but because too many charities chasing a smaller and smaller pot of money. So expansion of the "Third Sector" seems to be – on paper - having a (contradictory) negative impact on their areas of focus.

What future for arts participation in Wales?

The committee's recommendations sound sensible. I doubt there's any need for significant reform to the Arts Council for Wales. However, I think many arts organisations will find it difficult to secure private funding, sadly – especially in already deprived areas.

It's also worth pointing out, considering recent figures on overall health in the Valleys in particular, that participating in artistic/creative activities could be seen as therapeutic. So maybe there's a health dimension in this too that's worthy of further investigation.

This is perhaps the only area of public policy where Welsh-speakers genuinely do have an "advantage" over English monoglots, simply because they can interchange between English and Welsh arts activities. There's nothing wrong with that, but Welsh-speakers – by being bilingual – are effectively getting a 2 for 1 deal.

I believe judging whether art is "poor" or not is subjective. For instance, what I consider music would probably be considered an assault by many people. Thinking that a Treherbert street dance troupe needs to aim to be the next Bolshoi is rather snobbish in my opinion. It's that sort of attitude that leads to the situation in Blaenau Gwent noted further up – arts professionals being reluctant to travel to the Valleys to oversee projects.

That makes the whole situation genuinely quite upsetting. Imagine if you're a kid from a deprived background, who would like to participate in something, only to be told nobody can be bothered to travel to work with you – perhaps because what you want to do isn't "good enough" for them.

It should be about participation first and foremost, but there should be ways for the most talented to move ahead – perhaps go professional or semi-professional - if they want to.

Like sport, schools are important. Instead of formal arts subject lessons in schools, I would prefer to see them become completely extra-curricular, with the focus of finding and developing talent rather than teaching it for its own sake, with pupils having some choice over which one to go for.

If teaching arts moved from a set "taught" curriculum to a bit more fluid and loose I think it would foster a creative atmosphere a bit better and encourage take up. It would become more than just another rigid "boring lesson."

n music's case, I don't see why a wider range of styles and instruments couldn't be provided in the long-term – perhaps in partnership with amateur and professional music organisations – to take some pressure of schools music services - an issue raised by Nick Ramsey AM (Con, Monmouth) today coincidentally. Then Cardiff Council, for example, end subsidies for similar schemes.

Ultimately this comes down to money. When local or national governments are weighing up all sorts of public services in a time of cuts, it's very easy to put arts and culture towards the bottom of the list. They'll be asking themselves - do elderly people want meals on wheels or to learn how to tap dance?

But the arts have their place. Actions by the likes of Cardiff Council look extreme. That's not because they're "cultural philistines" taking away pet arts projects. It's just that they seem keen to make everything as dull and grim as possible for kids who might want to learn to play a musical instrument, write poetry or learn how to dance. You know, put a bit of colour in their lives and have some fun. Knowing the price of everything, but the value of nothing - a very Conservative attitude for a Labour council.

A nation without art is a very boring nation indeed. We might as well paint everything grey and eat nothing but boiled rice and cabbage. Make sure you're aiming downwind towards the likes of Russell Goodway, because if the rest of Wales follows his example, the only wind instruments in the Valleys would be farts.


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