The role of the arts within a holistic approach to Wales’ well-being goals and global commitments.

“Historically pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” (Arundhati Roy)

The global pandemic has put the livelihoods of artists in Wales and around the world at risk. It has also thrown structural inequalities into sharp focus, and movements like Black Lives Matter and We Shall Not Be Removed have set in motion a process of change. In the long term however, it is a small challenge compared with the magnitude of climate change.

As Nick Capaldi CEO of Arts Council of Wales has set out in Re-setting the Dial we will help the sector to recover and to address the deep-seated structural inequalities facing those whose voices have not been heard or projected in our work to date.

As we mark St David’s Day in lockdown, Wales Arts International’s “Pethau Bychain – Small things” campaign encourages simple acts of kindness to others and the planet and highlights artistic work that focuses on well-being.

We view St David’s Day as a time to make commitments to small things that we can do to instigate a much bigger change and to meet local and global goals.

The Global Goals (officially known as the Sustainable Development Goals), agreed by world leaders in 2015, aim to “create a better world by 2030 by ending poverty, fighting inequality and addressing the urgency of climate change”. Also in 2015, Wales became the first nation in the world to enshrine the goals in law through a pioneering piece of legislation, the Well-being of Future Generations Act. The Act identifies seven well-being goals which translate the Sustainable Development Goals into a Welsh context. Importantly for arts and culture, Wales also became the first nation to make culture a formal fourth pillar of sustainable development through the Act.

The pandemic, beyond doubt, has widened the inequalities gap in Wales and worldwide. But these inequalities and the underlying issue of poverty, which may explain why the pandemic has hit parts of Wales harder than most places in the world, are sadly not new.

According to public health experts, poverty is a key factor which is limiting well-being, life chances and even life expectancy. The words of Kelechi Nnoaham, Director for Public Health at Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, are chilling. Speaking recently on BBC Wales Today he said that had anyone warned in February 2020 that a pandemic was coming, based on known areas of deprivation and poverty, “you could almost predict the picture we're seeing now with a reasonable degree of accuracy".

Every publicly funded body, servant and project in Wales, across all sectors including the arts, should be asking how we best play our part to remedy this failing. Can we all pull together to deliver the most important public service needed right now, and take 2021 as the moment to step change our approaches to contributing towards the well-being goals and towards eradicating poverty in Wales and around the world?

The arts have a change-making role to play in enabling communities to maximise their contribution towards local and global well-being goals and, importantly, in creating a different story for us all to pass on to future generations.

As discussions grow around changing the NHS towards becoming a wellness rather than a sickness service, focusing on prevention rather than cure, the arts are invaluable in creating a new story.

If well-being is at the heart of our sustainable development agenda, culture is a golden breath that can invigorate the wellness of the population. But it is people working differently and together across public life that will make the difference.

In Wales we know about the immense impact of artists and health workers collaborating. From our National Dance Company’s Dance for Parkinson to cancer-nurse-turned-musician-and-techno-producer Kelly Lee Owens’ playlists to support key workers, the arts are offering preventative, anxiety-absorbing experiences that aid healing and induce happiness for every generation.

With the arts likely to be one of the last sectors to open its doors fully, our artists have suffered loss, challenges and changes like everyone else. Creatives have taken their work off stage, and into different theatre spaces – whether in hospitals and the open air or in virtual worlds and on digital platforms like AM.

In the arts, the impact of the pandemic will present challenges to artists, audiences, participants and policy makers for years to come.


The work of arts locally and globally in 2021

It has taken a global pandemic, the brutal murder of George Floyd, a reconfiguration of international relations post-Brexit on top of a climate emergency for us to realise the urgency to re-setting the dial of our cultural life in a sustainable way. 

But the pandemic is just a spotlight. The structural changes needed to meet our sustainability commitments are much more deep-rooted than the reach of the Covid Cultural Recovery Funds. But we can use this re-set to set a generational change.

How can our investment in children and young people today give them the right skills and mindset to mitigate the combined long-term impact of Covid, climate change and poverty?

This is a narrative we urgently need to start changing. 

Earlier this month the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, described 2021 as “a crucial year in the fight against climate change”. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which will be hosted in Glasgow later this year is – ironically – set to be the largest global gathering the UK has ever hosted.

Culture has a huge role to play in the fight against climate change. The United Nations itself has used digital platforms to give people access through campaigns like ResiliArt and bring people together to share and address common concerns, and the Secretary-General looks to member states to build on this momentum in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow. 

More nations are starting to realise that culture is not only essential in instigating a change in mindset, it is arguably the only tool able to connect everyone on the planet. This may be why New Zealand’s culture-centred approach to community development is particularly successful, even in fighting a pandemic.

To cultivate a sense of shared values and common interest, the colonial hierarchical power structures that have marginalised people for centuries must be dismantled. The arts offer a way of communicating intergenerational and intersectional experiences.

And there is no bigger challenge nor a greater common interest than the health of the planet. Re-imagining how to apply our collective creative talents and ambitions to this challenge is our work in 2021. Acting locally to reverse climate change globally is the work ahead.


The art of the possible

Culture and the arts can help to breathe wellness into our civic life. They can also give our children creative skills needed to navigate a changing world and to increase their life chances, breaking a vicious circle of child poverty and inequalities.

The arts are helping our resilience as people, health workers and families making lockdown tolerable. Singing has brought people together throughout Wales through initiatives like the Côr-Ona Facebook community or the Welsh NHS Choir.

The arts are also powerful tools to imagine a different future, and to explain and put the past in context.  The murder of George Floyd triggered much needed conversations in Wales about diversity and inequalities.

In 2021, Wales Arts International is committing to creating safe spaces for reflective conversations with minoritised communities in Wales. This was called for in a recent report “Smooth Seas do not make Skilful Sailors” by Watch Africa Cymru in response to a number of conversations hosted by Wales Arts International around re-imagining our international work in Wales. The report highlights the need for an intersectional approach to our work and for us to implement simple ideas from the Well-being of Future Generations Act. Their decolonised approach is compelling and relevant to our work this year.


A well-being economy values social and cultural return on investment

In a recent discussion hosted by the Institute of Welsh Affairs and guided by the Bevan Foundation, Professor Laura McAllister made the case for focusing on making Wales a values-led nation. She also argued for moving away from the global economic model and to focus on social, rather than purely economic, Return on Investment (ROI).

In our international work, the traditional definition of ‘export ready’ has been a barrier for many to growing a portfolio of international work. When measured against a purely economic ROI model, many artists may struggle to meet the criteria for being ‘export ready’ and to access the right showcasing opportunities. However, economic ROI alone is insufficient barometer in a changing world. To take Professor MacAllister’s argument a little further, we also need to be assessing ‘export readiness’ in terms of social and, crucially, cultural ROI. Social and cultural ROI models can and must be measured against our global goals.

To measure the ROI of our public investments in a holistic way, social, environmental, cultural and economic impact needs to be considered. These are Wales’ four pillars of sustainable development which underpin the Well-being of Future Generations Act.


A cultural approach to the seven well-being goals 

To contribute towards making Wales more prosperous, the arts and culture sector needs to prioritise young people, focusing on mental health, confidence building, cultural and global citizenship, bilingual and multilingual skills and enabling the growth of creative and digital skills.

Younger workers have borne the brunt of the job losses during the Covid crisis (BBC). We need to make space for young people through apprenticeships, work experiences, residencies, competitions and other career changing experiences.

If 2020 was a landmark year in recognising the barriers that people from diverse and minoritised backgrounds face in a colonial economic model, decolonising our minds, as was the subject of our international forum in 2018, will be our work in 2021. In his then keynote speech Tunde Adafaye gage a 10 point plan to decolonise the arts including our national institutions as is now being done by Amgueddfa Cymru as well as venues and arts spaces who are making sure young people from diverse communities can see themselves in the arts, culture and language economy of Wales

The sector can enhance local procurement of services and goods. By investing in local talent and product, we minimise the need for unnecessary high impact travel which will be a challenge in growing the low carbon cultural economy.

To make Wales more environmentally resilient, the arts have two key parts to play when the sector opens its doors once again. Firstly, we must take responsibility for radically reducing our own carbon footprint and helping others to do the same. As individuals, companies and the wider sector, we need to measure the impact of our festivals, arts centres, international tours and exchanges not simply against economic ROI or the positive impact of cultural exchange, but also against the carbon, social and cultural footprint we leave behind.

Changing our individual behaviour is vital. Doing the small things today will pay dividends for our children. As we re-think how we present and enjoy the arts, finding alternatives to high impact travel and consumption is a creative act in itself. We can choose to invest in and enjoy arts and culture more locally, and to travel far on occasion rather than as a norm, both for business and for pleasure. We can use recycled materials to make our arts go further.

‘One night only’ events are special occasions, but as producers and consumers we must ask ourselves whether they are really a sustainable use of our resources and our collective energy. The arts will no doubt be bringing green spaces alive creatively as spring emerges in 2021, so everyone involved in creating artistic experiences in these spaces must think about how to do so in an environmentally sustainable way.

Those of us involved in investing public funding in the arts (as grant recipients and as decision makers) need to be clear in our understanding of the impact of arts activity on the environment, locally and globally.

Secondly, and equally importantly, the arts and the wider creative and cultural economy must play a key role in telling stories and changing narratives to communicate the urgency of tackling climate change. Stories reach audiences on an emotional level and are essential for inciting behavioural change.

Cross-sector partnerships will be essential to achieving this. Arts Council of Wales’ Memorandum of Understanding with Natural Resources Wales is a good first step on the route to delivering against the global goals being discussed in COP26 in Glasgow.

Culture and the environment go hand in hand. Our cultural life has a huge impact on this planet, whilst our experience of our environment feeds our culture and values. We leave cultural footprints as well as carbon footprints as we live our lives. Artists do this as they reach new audiences and inspire people to be creative and to challenge themselves to engage with information intelligently.

Language springs from the land in which it is spoken. Words manifest an ecosystem which also dies if an endangered indigenous language dies. Welsh is no exemption. As houses and villages lose their Welsh names, their connection to the locality is significantly diluted. Investing in the Welsh language is investing in the local environmental and cultural ecosystem.

A more equal Wales means much greater participation of people who have been minoritised in Wales in decision-making processes. In our international work it also means celebrating the cultures of the international diaspora who have made their home in Wales. A re-think of what our international work is should mean a shift towards ensuring that all cultures are given equal respect in our communities, in a non-imperialistic way. It means a shift from a patriarchal culture and society to a gender balance in our companies, not just in the workforce but in senior positions. It means supporting mothers (and fathers) with childcare duties to engage internationally. It means fair pay for all, especially freelancers and artists from poorer countries.

The arts contribute significantly towards creating a healthier Wales, as set out in the partnership agreement between the Arts Council of Wales and the Welsh NHS Confederation, which has been put to the test during the Covid pandemic. The arts are anxiety absorbers for NHS workers and patients alike. The arts are a tool for expressing grief and creating works of remembrance. An NHS for wellness rather than for sickness favours creative approaches, including the power of the arts in preventative medicine and arts prescribing. The Wales Arts Health and Well-being Network highlights the immense work being developed in the context of Covid.

Social inequity has fuelled a polarisation in our communities, and the goal of building cohesive communities requires a re-think of old community ties. As we build back differently, a cultural democracy model developed by Amgueddfa Cymru places culture at the centre of community building, and places communities at the heart of all decisions. Many nations growing a well-being economic model like New Zealand use culture-centred approaches to community building.

The Agenda 21 for Culture, first established in 2004 by United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) in Barcelona, was the basis for Wales becoming the first nation in the world to adopt legislation to make culture the fourth pillar of sustainable development in 2015. Whilst the potential of this move is yet to be realised, the understanding of this potential is growing quickly, thanks to a great extent to the global pandemic.

The arts by their nature place people at the centre of the activity. Culture is what people make with other people. Our arts centres are cultural community hubs and our village halls are creative spaces for connecting within the community and internationally. Arts Council of Wales’ Night Out Scheme is a perfect example of how the global can be nurtured in local community spaces.

Wales is unique not just in the UK but globally in having a deliberate well-being goal for a Vibrant Culture and Thriving Welsh Language. In Wales, and particularly in Welsh-speaking communities, language and culture always go together, which gives our cultural life a different dynamic to other parts of the UK. As part of the well-being goal Welsh is a language that is owned by all, Welsh speakers, active listeners, supporters and all citizens of Wales, should they so choose, or at least that is the ambition of Welsh Government’s goal of a million speakers by 2050.

The Well-being of Future Generations Act places legislative duty on all public bodies to ensure a thriving Welsh language, which is energising a Welsh language economy. This development is in the context of an increasing global campaign of decolonising languages and linguistic rights as human rights. In Wales this means de-colonising both languages and associated cultures, and making space for Wales to be a thriving multi-lingual oasis.

 The arts are exploring decolonising practices through the medium of Welsh and English. Artist are re-telling Wales’ historical relationship with colonisation, both through the experience of a colonised culture and language and as part of a colonising empire, through the medium of the colonising language. This gives Wales a distinctive relationship with the current global discussion around decolonisation. 

Watch Africa Cymru’s report remind us that “Wales has a long history of internationalism, yes as part of the British empire and its colonial enterprise, but also as the home of diverse communities, and as an ally for supressed cultures, communities and countries across the world.”

Arts Council of Wales’ commitment to a new vision and strategy for Welsh language and the arts will be developed in the context of the disproportionate impact on Covid on the Welsh language on the one hand, and an urgent need to level the playing field for children from all backgrounds and ability to have the same language access and ability through education, mitigating the perception of the Welsh language as a barrier.  


Global Responsibility and the role of the arts in soft power are two often competing sides of the same coin.

Global responsibility isn’t a standalone commitment but part of 7 goals of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and is not something that can be extracted from the other goals. What’s important is that our action has impact at both a local and global scale / level. There is a creative tension between Wales’ well-being approach and the UK Government’s Soft Power Agenda, and a responsibility on individuals and organisations on both level to interact with the other respectfully. Whilst there are legitimate cultural concerns over the state using people’s culture without their consent, there is a role for Wales to play in terms of growing a global responsibility approach in de-colonising our relationships with other countries and cultures.

“Wales is not facing the challenges of climate change, inequality or the current pandemic alone. We exist and must understand ourselves and act as part of a global humanity. But if we are not already equal here in Wales, how can we treat others outside Wales as equal, let alone see unborn ‘future generations’ as having rights? And so the global does bring us back to the local; we must do the work at home as on the international stage, the two are not separate.” (Watch Africa Cymru report)

It is best approached through an honest and transparent approach.

If human values are applied globally and locally what we do and are will speak for itself” (Watch Africa Cymru report).

What we do with our time can change things. Small contributions have big consequences, the mantra of David, our Patron Saint.

The small first steps that will make space for the bigger moves to which Wales Arts International is committing for St David’s Day 2021 are :

1. Small step: Publishing and sharing the recommendations of the Watch Africa Cymru report on re-thinking our international.

    Bigger move: Act upon the recommendations of the report to decolonise our international work, to create safe spaces for  reflection and to look at an intersectional approach to the contemporary and diverse cultural life of Wales.


2. Small step: Prioritise arts, health and well-being as an area within our international work

    Bigger move: Develop international collaborative platforms with a focus on arts and health


3. Small step: Commit to work towards a wellbeing approach to our international work measured against the Wellbeing Goals

    Bigger move: Develop a holistic wellbeing model for measuring the return on investment of our international work. The model will measure social, cultural, environmental and economic impact and will be aligned to the seven well-being goals.