Arts and culture still struggles to shake off “elitist” label

(Title Image: National Assembly of Wales)

Culture Committee
Tackling Poverty & Social Exclusion through the Arts (pdf)
Published: 5th November 2019

“We know that the skills people gain from engaging in creative activity can help them develop skills which can improve their situation. We also know that participation in the arts can alleviate the effects of poverty and social exclusion. This is what makes it so important to ensure that our cultural life in Wales includes everyone.”
– Committee Chair, Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West)

1. Arts organisations need to work with communities to develop their activity programmes

There was a sense that arts organisations “go to” socially-excluded groups and don’t work with them to develop the kind of cultural programmes they might be interested in, resulting in a “here today, gone tomorrow” approach which fails to build trust amongst under-participating groups.

The Fusion programme is the main Welsh Government vehicle to promote collaboration between arts bodies and community groups (including schools) in eight areas, using culture to support employability, health and wellbeing for people living in deprived communities. However, there was criticism of its “outcome-based approach” which expected organisations to “show how brilliantly they’d done in ways that were not possible (i.e. people gaining apprenticeships or employment within 6 months).

While the Arts Council of Wales says Fusion has helped deliver closer links and foster collaboration, the Committee heard it it was mainly between different arts organisations and not the “hard to reach” themselves. There was an expectation that people will just turn up because it’s local and a free event.

2. The Arts Council favours larger, established arts organisations over community-based ones

There’s a mix of funding for the arts, ranging from the Welsh Government, National Lottery and local government. Arts Portfolio Wales is the umbrella used for the 67 organisations which receive funding from the Arts Council, ranging from major national companies like the National Opera and Wales Millennium Centre down to smaller community-focused organisations.

While funding for the arts has generally fallen, the cuts have been sharper at local government level, which has often lead to the loss of cultural infrastructure like community halls and libraries.

While the Arts Council told the Committee tackling poverty was a key objective, they accepted they were struggling to reach people who were economically or socially disadvantaged.

Some organisations and witnesses believed the Arts Council weren’t doing enough to drill down into the impact smaller organisations were having in terms of participation and engagement, meaning larger organisations were favoured by default.

3. Cultural attitudes are as much of a barrier to arts participation as costs

Upfront costs weren’t cited as the main barrier to people taking part in arts, as many cultural events are free or heavily discounted. Indirectly, most of the cost barrier related to things like access to transport, with car ownership lower amongst lower-income groups.

There were also cultural barriers, such as certain groups believing that the arts “weren’t for them”, with continued overtones of “hierarchy, status and elitism”. Some projects – like the Night Out scheme which takes performances to smaller community venues – have made a breakthrough, with up to 70% of attendees having never been to a theatre before.

The so-called “hard to reach” communities were actually easy to reach; they just believed the arts organisations were distant – calling back to what was said about building trust and working with communities. The Sherman Theatre said that while people talked about transport and other costs, it boiled down to, “Theatre isn’t for people like me”.

The Committee recommended free or subsidised transport as a possible solution, as was trying to break down cultural barriers by introducing children to the arts from a young age.

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