Wales’ cultural organisations need to get out of silos

May 8, 2024 by

It would be wonderful if the people and politicians (and even other cultural organisations) in Wales shared the view of the ‘names” who sign letters and social media posts warning of the imminent implosion of Welsh National Opera.

Living and working outside of this bubble, including teaching young people in the cultural and creative industries, I know that, sadly, they do not.

I do. Yet, I would also rather see some grown up debate about the role, future, and funding of culture in Wales and the whole of the UK. The danger in such names-led campaigns is that they can just reinforce the elitist image opera still has – don’t ask me, ask my 100 plus students. Of course, most people in Wales will be oblivious of what is happening anyway – and possibly care as little.

The National Museum of Wales has lost 100 staff, and the main building is leaking and risking actual closure. Mid Wales Opera, that takes opera to the people of Wales, has lost all its funding. The list goes on and on.

This is not a question of whether WNO can sustain its current level of operation, but what the UK governments and the people of the UK, beyond those of us who love opera, want from the cultural sector and how and whether to fund it.

I have long thought WNO is more of an economic and political organisation (and partly educational) on behalf of the Welsh government, as seen in the emphasis on being a “flagship”, soft power, international work etc.

As such, I think it should be mainly funded from the (apparently bottomless) other Welsh government pools of money (you know, 20mph, Welsh language, green initiatives, 50 mph motorways, Future Generations Commissar, extra members of the Senedd) rather than the very small arts budget. Let the smaller vibrant cultural organisations have funding to serve the people and artists of Wales, including Mid Wales Opera, and keep the roof of the museum from falling in.

Would it similarly not make sense for there to be a buildings fund that looks after the nation’s cultural infrastructure i.e. lost of old buildings – rather than expect cultural organisations to be experts in roofs, damp, parking etc and pay for it from their allocations? Let them do what they are good at and give them funding for that. Then there is the educational, social, social engineering, health etc roles the arts companies seem to have been handed with, some embracing them, and some ticking funding boxes. ¬†Are these really what the Arts Council of Wales should be funding? Look at the lack of quality and quantity of some of the output and sizes of audiences compared to private sector live performance that people flock to and are happy to pay to see.

Then what of the BBC? It is well funded from public taxation through the licence fee and yet its contribution to the cultural life of Wales is virtually invisible beyond the bubble of the National Orchestra of Wales.

Similarly, the non-state funded media in Wales is disappearing and with it plurality of debate, conversation and, sadly, cultural coverage is extremely small. A small number of Welsh government funded blogs and niche online magazines and some subsided Welsh language publications is not enough for what purports to be a nation. Thank goodness for the political decision to subsidise Welsh language output or hardly anyone in this sector would make a living.

It is a little cheap to point out that if the 170 plus people who signed a letter urging more money for WNO dipped into their pockets and set up a standing order to Mid Wales Opera for the equivalent price of an americanos and almond croissants each week, the company would be able to take opera throughout Wales without public money.

More strategically, the opinion formers in Wales are to the opera singers and directors, conductors, former archbishops, retired rugby players, classical singers etc. The decisions are made by trade union leaders and the Labour politicians whom they sponsor and keep in power. Get them and the case will be won.

Let’s see an open letter signed by the heads of Unite, GMB, Unison, USDAW, Community, ASLEF in Wales urging WNO to be given more money which, of course, means less money from other areas of Welsh government funding. However, Vaughan Gething has made his views on the cultural life of Wales clear, if we look at the pronouncements concerning the National Museum.

Some clearer strategic thinking is needed, and individual companies need to get out of their silos (and reliance on support from people living in bubbles), to take this debate forward.




Image: Welsh National Operas attempt to present a politically correct version of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.


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