Emma Clark speaks with chairman of Arts Council Wales Phil George about the challenges facing the arts in Wales, and what can be done to overcome them.
“We fund a wide range of organisations at Arts Council Wales to deliver the arts and to engage people with the arts in communities across Wales,” starts Phil George when asked about the role of the organisation. He was previously a broadcaster and documentary producer with roles at the TV production company Green Bay and National Theatre Wales. He was appointed as the new chairman of Arts Council Wales in March, and will serve for a three-year term. The conversation then turns to budget cuts: “Obviously in a time of austerity, in a time of cuts that’s tough, and it’s tight for them it’s tight for us, which is why we have to drive our own costs down so we’re not taking money away from arts and art organisations. But we fund a whole range of people to be the best they can in all kinds of places across Wales. In a time of austerity, you must never encourage people to play safe. It’s the time to be bold, to be innovative, to reach out and trust an audience to be excited by something new and inspiring.”
There has been criticism before that the cuts are disproportionately affecting those who are most vulnerable in society. Phi responds: “I think once again we have to do two things really. Work closely with the tight budgets and make the biggest impact that we can, and secondly make the case for funding. So let’s start with impact. I was talking to Kate Strudwick the other day from Head for Arts and she’d been doing a project in a biscuit factory, making art about Merthyr out of biscuits and working with a workforce there that included workers born overseas, particularly Polish people, working alongside local Merthyr people. In the Penydarren Social Club there was a night run by National Theatre Wales working with local artists and local performers, and there was a huge debate mixed with performance about the future of Merthyr and its challenges. When we go to our funders, our principle funders, the Welsh Government, we say to them ‘look, that’s what we’re doing in the arts’.”
He continues: “Welsh people appreciate the arts. A survey that we did with the Welsh public in 2015 showed that a very high percentage of people in Wales support public funding of arts. Well over 80%. In terms of attendance and participation the figures are remarkably high, particularly in schools and in other activities that we support. I would challenge the idea that the Welsh people are alienated from the arts. We do know of course that at arts events, there is a higher turn out from a better off percentage of the population. We are working hard all the time to open up access to the arts in terms of attendance and professional arts events, and in terms of participation and becoming creative yourself.”
The conversation then turns on how to improve the profile of Welsh arts around the world: “You begin by encouraging excellence, and if you have excellent work, it will attract attention. When organisations like NoFit State Circus and the Welsh National Opera, National Theatre Wales, all kinds of individual artists and organisations do fantastic work that attracts attention, then Wales get noticed. We also do a lot of work as an Arts Council to help people build up their skills and capabilities so that they get the most out of trade fairs and showcases. But what I want to emphasise above all is we’re not in the first place a funding organisation; we’re an arts development organisation. When we work with organisations and individual artists that we fund, we work to develop their practices and their skills, we work with them and what their issues and their problems are so that the product that they’re taking is as strong as it can be when they go abroad. So think of the Arts Council as not just a source of funding, but as a source of arts development to strengthen the work of the individual artist.”