TAITMAIL ‘We need risk to survive – and a champion’

The Wales Millennium Centre was, frankly, an embarrassment. It was to have been Wales’s huge lottery-fuelled gesture to the Millennium, a capital project to rival the Sydney Opera House that would launch Cardiff’s international reputation. It almost sank it. 

It was going to be the Cardiff Bay Opera House, a magnificent home for the homeless Welsh National Opera, and an architectural competition was won by the star architect of the day, Zaha Hadid, with a sparkling “crystal palace”. It never happened. There were local doubts – there was more interest in the prospect of a non-elitist new rugby stadium – about there being enough popular interest in opera to sustain it. The Millennium Commission, tasked with handing out lottery money to projects that would mark the new era with capital projects like Tate Modern, agreed and the cash was refused.
So there had to be a bad-tempered return to the drawing board, and a more rational plan for a lyric venue that could stage touring blockbuster musicals was given to a local, non-celebrity, architectural practice to create. It cost £106m.
Despite its name, it missed the millennium by four years, and its troubles still weren’t over. It had a 1,900-seat auditorium in which to receive the likes of Warhorse, and very little else. And with the paltry subsidy given it by the Welsh National Assembly, its sponsor, it was within an ace of closing again within a year if it hadn’t been for a new subvention negotiated at the last gasp.
It celebrates it 20th birthday this year as a resounding success, or so its artistic director, Graeme Farrow, believes. It gets an average box office of 85% and has diversified and rationalised so that out goes the restaurant, in comes a space for youngsters to chill in – and it’s the only arts centre that has its own youth hostel - opera rehearsal rooms and stage, a theatre, dance, comedy, a new immersive centre and an ever-open door. It gets 1.8m a year passing through it, and probably a thousand people on the eight-acre site at any time. There are programmes to introduce young people to the creativity that is missing from their classrooms, studios in which they can work on sound, set design, costume making and whatever other creative pursuits they want to try. The WMC's early boast to be an international cynosure has been forgotten, and the accent is very much Welsh now.
This week in London the WMC opened its co-production with the National Theatre, Tim Price’s Nye, starring Michael Sheen as Aneurin Bevan, which will open in Wales in May. For the centre has become a successful producer as well as the presenter it was originally meant to be, and this is its first collaboration with the National. First of many, Farrow hopes.
But the future is far from rosy. Culture nationwide is in crisis and there is no collective initiative to get us out of it. When, as Farrow says, the only thing going down is subsidy and everything else is going up, there has to be some serious rethinking. And the peril is not simply to venues, it is to the art itself.
The danger is that places like the WMC will become risk averse. “Frankly, we need to combat the rise of cultural conservatism (which means relying on known box office bankers such as Hamilton which comes in November) that has developed through systemic devaluing and disinvestment in the arts in Wales and the UK – and it hits harder outside London. 
“The concern is not political, it’s the elimination of risk. People are going to have to take less risk, and that is the road to decline”, and they are fighting in a bear pit, he says, for whatever funding there is, scrabbling fiercely for scraps. That means there is enmity, that the sector is not together and creatives feel excluded.
The WMC get about 15% of its income from subsidy, either from Arts Council Wales, the British Council or the Welsh Assembly, good support from charitable trusts, and the rest it earns. But, he says, if the centre were to have 100% sales for every presentation for the next year it would not match the vertiginous rise in costs. He thinks his footfall should be more like 3m, not 1.8m, for comfort.
Farrow met the press a couple of hours before Jeremy Hunt’s Budget that included a permanent increase in tax relief for theatres and touring, but there are large worries in the regions and nations still about the concerns expressed by the West End producer Sonia Friedman who recently declared that she could no longer afford to tour big shows in the way that she has become famous for. And her shows are among those bankers that allow a precious element risk in home production.
The answer, Farrow, says, is more collaboration, more co-production, less competition – and a champion or body of champions that will speak for the arts beyond the petty bean counting.
The next WMC production will be Pontypool, Tony Burgess’s apocalyptic zombie romp in which a virus is transmitted by the English language, which is likely to appeal in Wales, and Nye is already close to a sell-out. But there remains a void in the missing voice that can command respect and support. The irony is not lost on Farrow that arguably the last great champion for the arts was the first arts minister, Jennie Lee, the wife of Nye Bevan.

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