July 2020 could go down in history as the moment when everything changed. It was the moment when, in response to nationwide upheaval, Arts Council of Wales did something radical. They apologised. They accepted blame. They outlined tangible steps for the future. Sure, that’s their job, nobody should be applauded for doing something they’re paid to do, but let’s not ignore the significance of their thorough and well-expressed statement. White-led organisations with bucket-loads of power never say sorry but slowly, surely, here we are. I hope they know that that was the easy part; the actual hard work is yet to come. That it took so many concurrent cultural crises for ACW to respond publicly is, in short, shameful; it’s also not surprising. After all, the only culture our sector has consistently and successfully developed is a culture of silence. We’re masters of the art. Our gatekeepers are very good at noticing change a mile away, dragging it to the ground and stubbing it out like a half-smoked cigarette. It’s actually really smart, and makes you wonder how much better things would be if they used that intelligence in better places. 

Other organisations are also starting to release statements, but the problem is that none of them are going deep enough. Sure, they might now understand what systemic racism is and how they can make change, but they’re yet to express why that structural inequality developed in the first place. Why have Black artists become so energised today? Why were female artists raising their voices ten years ago? Why are disabled artists refusing to be ignored? Why are freelancers across the sector mobilising with such ferocity? Dig just a little bit deeper and the reason appears with stark clarity: power. Those who have it, and those who don’t.

It’s very clear that the arts workforce in Wales is being exploited by overpaid executives, and has been for a very long time. How much artists get exploited depends on various factors (skin colour, for example), but rest assured they are all being exploited. Almost all of the freelancers I spoke to for this article, many under anonymity, confirmed that they’d never earned more than £20,000 in one year. Those who did break that milestone were quick to point out that it was an anomaly – ‘a good year’. Some artists earned as little as £5,000. These are the people who write, direct, perform, create, design, choreograph, produce, manage and everything in-between. They’re not the lifeblood of the industry; they are the industry. On the other side of this spectrum are the institutions, the venues, the funding bodies, the gatekeepers. They are the people who hold the fate and livelihoods of the workforce in their hands and, unsurprisingly, the disparities are stark:

  • Welsh National Opera receives £4.5million a year from ACW – in 2018/19 five of their senior team earned up to £90,000; one senior member earned up to £110,00; and their highest earning staff member made up to £120,000
  • Wales Millennium Centre receives £3.8million a year from ACW – in 2019/20 three of their senior team earned up to £90,000; one senior member earned up to £120,000; and their highest earning staff member made up to £170,000
  • National Theatre Wales receives £1.6million a year from ACW – in 2019/20 one of their senior team earned up to £70,000; and their highest earning staff member made up to £90,000
  • Arts Council Wales are the funding body for the arts in Wales – in 2018/19 four of their senior team earned up to £75,000; and their highest earning staff member earned up to £100,000

These were the only figures available at time of writing, but they paint a pretty clear picture. And let’s not forget that many of these highly-ranked, highly-paid figures are not artists. No, these are top-level executives, plotting their continued dominance in the War Room. Meanwhile the trenches overflow with increasingly disgruntled soldiers who eventually turn on each other. Everybody – everybody – agrees that lack of money is one of the biggest obstacles facing the arts sector in Wales. It’s the reason why, when a freelance artist makes a funding application, they have to justify every single penny spent. Money is supposedly so scarce, so elusive, that doing outreach work or improving access or investing in future talent is really difficult. There’s supposedly no way artists can be paid what they deserve because the money just isn’t there to support them, yet senior executives are regularly rewarded for their failure with a bumper salary.

There is only one solution to this travesty of a problem – these failed executives have to step down and be replaced by people who amplify the voice of art and community. Only when the keys are in the hands of these people – the workforce – will change truly happen. It isn’t just about hirings and firings either – all that wealth needs to go to the right places. Could a salary cap help the arts? How transformative would it be if an organisation couldn’t pay anyone more than £60,000? By that logic, the annual savings made by Welsh National Opera (£260,000), Wales Millennium Centre (£260,000), National Theatre Wales (£30,000) and Arts Council of Wales (£100,000) would be immense. And, if for argument’s sake, we theorised that a freelancer could live on £25k a year, savings from just those four organisations could sustain up to 26 artists. It’s only radical if you’re earning hundreds of thousands of pounds – for the rest, it’s actually really sensible.

Good organisations recognise when things are going wrong, and do what’s necessary to improve. When ACW begins consulting with artists from the Black community and, later, when conversations begin with other parts of the sector, they have to acknowledge that everything is wrong. That’s not the fault of the set designer who got paid minimum Equity rates for a six-week job. It’s the fault of the executive who, despite getting paid hundreds of thousands of pounds, couldn’t run a publicly funded institution properly. July 2020 really could be the moment when everything changed but, if Arts Council Wales and other major institutions in Wales truly want change, they need to change themselves. They need to take power away from those who continue to fail, and give it to the workforce that keeps our industry alive. It’s not radical, it’s logical.

I’d like to thank the various freelance artists who discussed their financial information with me. Organisational figures in this article have been taken from publicly-available audit reports.

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