Why isn’t visual art a big thing in Wales?

March 3, 2019 3 Comments

How healthy are the visual arts in Wales?  Not just in the sense of how many or how good are the artists, but other, more contextual questions, such as:  How are they valued?   How are they supported?  How are artists encouraged and trained?  How are the arts used to bring new life to depressed communities?  In short, is visual art a ‘big thing’ in Wales, or not?

I’m no accountant, but here’s a very crude ‘balance sheet’ of assets and liabilities, as I see them.  Some propositions, contrary to good accounting practice, appear in both columns.  And you may think that others are in the wrong column. 

First, then, the assets.

A1        The visual arts are alive and flourishing in Wales

Making art is a remarkably common activity in Wales.  Artists may be trained or self-trained, full-time or part-time, established or starting out.  But there are many, many of them living and working here.  Some use traditional, craft-based forms – there are plenty of painters, sculptors, potters and others, though making skills may no longer be taught in schools or art schools – while others work in new modes: conceptual, performance, digital, and so on.

Artists are found everywhere, though clusters occur in urban centres or near to art schools.  Swansea, it seems to me, has an unusually rich array – I admit I may be biased – thanks to its deep history of art teaching and art collecting.

Why should Wales be so blessed?  There are many reasons.  One may be that the fine natural and human environments of the country attract and hold artists.  Another might derive from Wales’s (comparative) material poverty: artists seldom value single-minded money-making as a worthwhile aim in life; rents are low and studios cheap (Elysium alone offers over 80 studios in Swansea alone).

A2        New artists are made every year

Many students still enrol to study creative arts and design in Wales.  In 2017-18: 1,040 postgraduates and 7,070 undergraduates.  The total numbers have been fairly stable over time: 9,104 in 2013-14 and 8,510 in 2017-18.  That’s encouraging when you consider that the population of school-leavers is in natural decline at the moment, and that humanities subjects, in our utilitarian, buy-a-lucrative-career educational climate, are generally in rapid decline (consider the virtual elimination of modern languages).

We still have numerous art schools.  You can study visual arts in Carmarthen, Swansea, Cardiff (twice over) and Aberystwyth.  Some have their problems, but who does not in today’s harsh climate?

I’ve not found published statistics for post-art school employment.  Not all graduates find work in art or design, or, if they do, stay in Wales.  But it’s clear that many do.

A3        Art in Welsh schools is looking up

In recent decades the creative arts have had a hard time in British schools, squeezed by the concentration on ‘core’ subjects and an obsession with measurement and competition.

In England, prospects for the future are still dire – outside private schools, which always seem to find it both possible and necessary to devote resources to expressive arts.  But in Wales there are grounds for hope.  In 2013 the Arts Council of Wales, under the chairmanship of Dai Smith, published a remarkable report on arts in schools.  It made a strong case for the increasing importance of creative arts, not least in the context of the flourishing creative industries, and urged a central part for them in the school curriculum.  The Welsh Government responded by issuing Creative learning through the arts: an action plan for Wales (2016).  This confirmed the Arts Council’s approach, and decided to establish a Lead Creative Schools scheme, with the potential to reach a third of schools in Wales over the five-year period of this plan.  Each school would have support for two years from ‘creative agents’.

Even more important, the new Welsh curriculum, established following the Donaldson review of 2015, should give a huge boost to the creative arts.  The curriculum will start to be implemented in April 2019, and will be complete by 2022.  It has six ‘Areas of Learning and Experience’, one of which is Expressive Arts, which includes three inter-linked creative processes, ‘Explore and Experience’, ‘Create and Express’ and ‘Respond and Reflect’.

These are radical and encouraging changes.  How fast things can move in the schools themselves is another matter.  Will the resources be there to make a difference?  Will there be enough good teachers equipped to make the most of the changes?

A4        Welsh art can be seen

We still have good galleries in Wales, where art and craft can be seen, discussed, criticised and bought.  They include private and third-sector galleries: Martin Tinney, Kooywood, Albany, G39 and others in Cardiff; in Swansea, the Attic, Mission, Galerie Simpson, Volcano and Elysium; others are scattered through Wales, like Oriel Plas Glan-y-Weddw, MOMA, Oriel Mostyn, Oriel Davies and Oriel Ffin y Parc.  Also the nationals (Museum and Library), with their historical collections and occasional contemporary displays, and local authority spaces, in Swansea, Newport and elsewhere.

The National Eisteddfod shows contemporary work in Y Lle Celf each year – admittedly for one week only, but the show reaches a large audience, up to 40,000 visitors, many of them not regular art gallery visitors.  There are also competitions and prizes that help artists: in Swansea, for example, the Wakelin and Leslie Joseph Prizes and BEEP.

The work of artists is still bought – privately, often with help from the Arts Council’s longstanding Collectorplan; through voluntary associations, especially CASW; and sometimes through public commission (but see L3 below).

A5        We value Welsh art of the past

Confidence about contemporary Welsh art is founded on an appreciation of the work of previous Welsh artists.  This was not always so.  In his book The artist in Wales, published in 1957, David Bell, curator of the Glynn Vivian, wrote, ‘We must admit … that the genius of the Welsh people has expressed itself primarily in literature and in poetry and not in the visual arts’.  Fortunately, Peter Lord, almost single-handedly, demolished this idea, in his three-volume The visual culture of Wales (1998-2003) and its summary The tradition (2016).

We’re lucky to have other writers, like Peter Wakelin, Tony Curtis, Iwan Bala, Barry Plummer and Ceri Thomas, who’ve also explored many aspects of past art in Wales.

Now we turn to the liabilities side of the balance sheet.  Here there some major deficiencies – along with the possibility of making up for them in future.

L1        We have no national focus for seeing contemporary art

Wales has no National Gallery of Contemporary Art.  The debate about it goes back decades.  Each time, plans are drawn up, hopes are raised, discussions had – and nothing happens.

The latest attempt began with a feasibility study for Welsh Government, the Arts Council and the National Museum by consultants Event Communications, published in 2018: National contemporary art gallery Wales: preliminary feasibility study and options appraisal.  This recommended not a single centre or building, but a network of between six and eight existing venues, plus a central ‘hub’.  (Realism about capital resources may have influenced this option as much as the desire to avoid centralisation in a decentred country.)  A debate took place in the National Assembly on 27 November 2018, but there’s been no news from the Welsh Government since. 

What would a National Gallery offer?  Greater visibility, certainly, for existing modern collections and the work of current artists; a chance for the public to assess the ‘best’ of contemporary work; a focus for discussion and critique; and improved status for art and artists.

The current contrast with Scotland is stark.  Here a National Gallery was started as long ago as 1960; the current Gallery has too large sites in Edinburgh – and there’s the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. 

L2        Where can we talk about Welsh art?

A thriving arts scene needs people to talk about art.  Literally to talk, but also to publish.

Some art writing is published in journals like Planet, Barn, Golwg, and Wales Arts Review.  But we’ve no art periodical since Culture Colony’s CCQ.   Books on Welsh art appear from time to time: often they’re labours of love, and have a small market.

There’s no television or radio programme dedicated to art, though some Welsh and English radio arts programmes cover visual arts sporadically.  Few one-off feature programmes are made on visual art: it would be hard to imagine the BBC today making the equivalent of Quiet rebel, the programme it made in 1964 about the young painter Roger Cecil after turned his back on the Royal College of Art to return to Abertillery.

The lack of a discussion space leads to a loss of visibility for artists and their work, and lack of public debate about their art and its significance.  There are no easy answers to the problem – writers need a wider, livelier public arts audience than exists at present – but the need is real.

L3        Public bodies often lack vision and a strategy for the visual arts

The Arts Council, working now with a diminishing budget, has done a good job in supporting the visual arts, and especially in recent years has sparked developments in art education (see A3 above).  Wales Arts International, too, has played a part in promoting artists’ links with other countries.

But not all initiatives have been wise ones.  Take the international prize Artes Mundi.  A recent article by Huw David Jones in Planet casts serious doubts on its value to Wales and Welsh artists, except to artists who already have an international reputation.  He quotes the cultural strategy of the Welsh Government, whose priority is ‘to convince others that Wales is modern, outward-looking nation, for them to visit and do business with’.  That sort of instrumentalist, mercantilist thinking put paid, Jones says, to the old ‘Welsh Opens’ organised by the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain between late 1950s and late 1960s.  These came to an end when the exhibitions had become ‘esoteric, intellectual and incomprehensible’.  ‘I suspect’, Jones concludes, ‘Artes Mundi may suffer a similar fate’.

What about local authorities?  They’ve lost so much capacity since ‘austerity’ began that their ability – even their will – to support art has withered.  It’s not impossible, if ‘austerity’ continues to be imposed, as seems likely, that authorities will be able to do little more than carry out their minimum statutory obligations – which don’t include supporting culture, other than libraries. 

One part of the public realm that has been relatively immune, until recently, from austerity, is higher education.  Bangor, Aberystwyth and South Wales universities have kept faith with their cultural provision.  But in general universities increasingly see themselves as commercial enterprises.  They often feel less and less loyalty to their local communities or to continuing local cultural provision.  Swansea University, for example, closed its Ceri Richards Gallery without consultation in 2017.

One consequence of the decline of the public realm is that public bodies now have almost no money available for commission or purchase of art.  With some exceptions – Abertawe Bro Morgannwg Health Board is a good local example – they now have to rely on charities and benefactors (thin on the ground in Wales) if they want to buy.  Art and artists are the poorer.

L4        The arts are largely untried as an engine of Welsh community regeneration

Before the Turner Contemporary was opened in 2011 the town of Margate in Kent was a run-down place.  Since then the influx of visitors, over three million of them, has allowed dozens of businesses, some connected with the arts, others not, to start up or move in.  Social and economic problems remain, but Margate seems a lively and hopeful place today.

Using culture to regenerate communities has barely started in Wales.  In Wrexham, Tŷ Pawb was opened in 2018, with Arts Council funding, as a bold mix of commerce and culture.  It brings together a traditional covered market with a new arts centre including exhibition and performance spaces, studios and shops: ‘we offer a new space for dialogue around subjects including social and civic issues, the environment, health, cultural identity, sustainability and education’.  Its programme emphasises skills and craft, working with emerging and established artists from all backgrounds.  The architectural critic Rowan Moore wrote of Tŷ Pawb, ‘If this can’t bring art and everyday life together, I don’t know what will.’

Aberystwyth may soon have a similar facility.  With a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of over £10m the University will transform the Old College into a cultural centre, again with spaces for community and commercial use, and studios for practising artists.

Swansea has not yet seen the light.  True, Locws International has been bringing public art to the city for years, and recently Coastal Housing has nurtured a transformation of the High Street, with the emergence of several cultural facilities, including two gallery spaces.  Without much public support Jonathan Powell and his colleagues have achieved wonders in building Elysium as a set of studios and gallery spaces.

Swansea Council, though, despite its restoration and modernisation of the Glynn Vivian Gallery and its minimal maintenance of the cultural services it owns, hasn’t yet made any attempt to treat visual arts, or culture in general, as a central part of revitalising Swansea.  Its current city centre project has the same old reliance on monster projects (a ‘digital arena’), the outmoded model of ‘revival by retail’, and cosmetic relaying of roads and pavements. 

Maybe, given that survival, not growth is their preoccupation, we can’t rely any longer on local authorities to show cultural leadership, at least in terms of planning and strategy.  Instead, coalitions of other bodies – public, third sector and private – might be the best way of starting the process: an alliance of the willing, capable of sharing a vision.  In Swansea there are encouraging signs lately of bodies coming together to begin to think more connectedly and longer-term. 

An early aim for this kind of coalition, because it’s relatively cheap, is to begin branding and marketing Welsh cities and towns as significant centres of artistic activity – not just for external consumption, but to make ourselves aware of – and confident about – what talent and potential exist here.  ‘Swansea City of Art’ isn’t an unreasonable logo, and one that might inspire many people to believe that anything was possible.

This piece is based on a short talk given as an introduction to a debate held at the Attic Gallery, Swansea on 1 March 2019.  Thanks are due to Lisa and Andrew of the Attic Gallery for allowing the event to take place.  All the illustrations are of glass work made by Catrin Jones.

Comments (3)

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  1. richard chappell says:

    An excellent monograph well anchored in factual information. The concluding paragraphs regarding a way forward in the current financially restricted circumstances, which offered a concrete and realistic solution, was especially welcome.

  2. Neil Confrey says:

    Yes, a very well researched and presented piece, please also bear in mind what could be seen as outlier initiatives, mainly artist led, such as Oriel Rug and BayArt in Cardiff and particularly the remarkable Studio18 in Pontycymmer, developed and run by the artist Kevin Sinnott.

  3. Jean Williams says:

    An very good evening, lively duscussion following an excellent thought provoking talk. Mamy thanks to Andrew and Lisa at the Attic Gallery ac hefyd i Andrew am y scwrs. Diolch yn fawr.

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