As an outsider, choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir recognises in the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act a progressive framework for involving the arts in reimagining a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable Wales and the world: what’s not to be proud of?
In 2015, in a submission to Ireland’s Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s consultation on its draft Culture 2025 document, I expressed a hope that the Culture 2025 strategy would provide an ambitious framework for the development of cultural activity in Ireland. I suggested that such development would depend on a greater integration of cultural activity, arts, heritage and its practitioners, in all aspects of government policy: health, foreign relations, infrastructure investment, welfare, education. This would not be about the instrumentalisation of culture in the service of other agendas but of integrating the distinctive perspectives and value that emerges from involvement in cultural activity and creative expression into policy development and strategic decision-making. It would be about recognising artists as citizens with perspectives and skills to share will fellow citizens in making better societies for more people.
I cited, as an example of how this might work, the ambitious integration that had just been legislated by the Welsh Assembly with its pioneering Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. In 2015, Wales was the first nation in the world to bring the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development into law and in doing so was also the first nation to make culture a pillar of its sustainable development plan. The Act was and is remarkable for placing on public bodies a duty to sustainably meet specific Well-Being goals, among which is a goal to make Wales a society that promotes and protects culture, heritage and the Welsh language and which encourages people to participate in the arts, sports and recreation. This is a commitment to recognise the value of artistic knowledge and experience in building a sustainable future not just for Wales, but for the world.
From the outset, Wales has developed its well-being approach with a global perspective, collaborating with other states, nations, cities and regions on a variety of sustainability initiatives. As a result, while the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act has legislative force in Wales, its sense of responsibility is global, mandating that “when doing anything to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales” that the nation and its public bodies take “account of whether doing such a thing may make a positive contribution to global well-being”.
As we begin to imagine and design futures in response to the Covid 19 pandemic, there is an opportunity in our enforced pause to think how we might do things differently, how we avoid going back to systems and institutions that didn’t work for many. The Well-Being of Future Generations Act offers a roadmap towards a more equal, inclusive and sustainable society in Wales. It also offers Wales a route towards confidently sharing its knowledge with the world and confidently collaborating with international partners to draw on experiences from elsewhere. The local, national and international are linked in mutually beneficial ways under the auspices of the Act. It’s not protectionist. It’s not isolationist and in a moment of threat where some might be tempted to retreat and narrow, it offers an open and generous perspective that acknowledges our planetary interdependence. Crucially, the arts are recognised as key partners in imagining and realising a better future for Wales and the world. There’s so much to celebrate in such a progressive vision, so much that answers the calls to rebalance economies and societies in response to the Covid crisis.
Since arriving in Wales, I’ve been in private and official conversations that have bemoaned the lack of a confident Welsh nation brand. I’ve been asked enviously about the success of Brand Ireland and its foregrounding of the arts, culture and creativity. Surely, in the Well-Being of Future Generations Act there is an admirable and distinctive vehicle that could be the basis for a confident Welsh offer to its citizens and to the world.
There are already some notable examples of joined-up public service delivery that includes the arts: the MOU between the Welsh NHS Confederation and Arts Council Wales that provides a framework for much arts and health work in Wales is envied in other jurisdictions and is possible in no small part because of the duty the Act places on public bodies. Sophie Howe, Future Generations Commissioner for Wales has also acknowledged the importance of the arts: “A person’s cultural well-being; whether they can access and enjoy the arts, go to the cinema, take part in an art class, join a choir, and feel free to express themselves is key to everyone’s quality of life and is why the arts has a critical role to play when it comes to the well-being of future generations.” However, the 2018 audit of the first year of activity in response to the Future Generations legislation makes only two mentions of the arts in its 42 pages. Both refer to the Arts Council and are confined to a particular case study: it’s not a report therefore that suggests that the arts are woven into the activity of all public bodies. The report’s author, Huw Vaughan Thomas, has identified that “There is a risk that for some, the Well-Being of Future Generations Act is perceived as ‘another thing to do’…. Unless those bodies and individuals adopt a mindset where they see sustainable development as an approach that can help them address major budget and service challenges, rather than an additional burden, they will be unable to make the most of the opportunity the act affords.”(1)
So what are the opportunities now? And how can the arts with its ecology of professionals, enthusiasts, individuals, organisations, communities and audiences, play the best part in processing the experience of a pandemic, in recovering what’s been valuable and in discovering what we need next?
The ONS has revealed that the proportion of people in Britain reporting high levels of anxiety has more than doubled since the end of 2019 with nearly half the population over 16 affected. Frontline workers in the NHS and elsewhere are at particular risk of PTSD and other stress conditions. Existing social and economic inequalities are being exacerbated with negative impacts of physical and mental health on those already disadvantaged. Some mental health researchers have cautioned against the reporting of people’s distress in the pandemic as an increase of mental illness. For them, the distress that most are experiencing is a sign of mental wellness – a healthy concern for others – rather than a deficiency that needs medicalising. By calling that distress mental ill health, there’s a danger that we reach for psychiatric solutions, dispensed by medical professionals, when what’s needed is “the chance to channel these feelings into finding solutions for the very real social problems highlighted by the pandemic.”(2)
The chance to reflect, to process, to express and to imagine better is something the arts can provide, though it will do so in rhythms and forms that have to respect the varying paces of people’s capacity to respond. Professor James Rutherford has conducted research on how artists have worked in crises such as war and natural disasters and has proposed that the further people are from the moment and location of crisis, either in geography or in time, the easier it is for them to make artistic work about the catastrophe.(3)
If sufficient time has elapsed then people who experienced the catastrophe can make work about it. If people are sufficiently geographically distant from the crisis, then they may be able to make work about it sooner. We should remember this before rushing to expect artists or communities to respond directly to the Covid pandemic. And we should also remember that though the pandemic has been global, its impacts have not been felt equally: different countries have experienced the effects of the crisis differently and within countries different groups – often those already disadvantaged – have suffered to different degrees the health risks and the socioeconomic shock of lockdown.
But not immediately making work ‘about’ the crisis doesn’t mean that engaging with artistic practice isn’t useful. And doing so may be of great benefit to people’s well-being, especially if we recognise that well-being isn’t about enforced happiness. While the arts can provide necessary distraction, delight and uplift, well-being also involves a resilience that acknowledges what has been painful and challenging, that helps us sit with what are legitimately negative emotions of anger and sadness, fear and worry.(4)
The excellent arts and health work in Wales for which the Future Generations Act provides such an important underpinning, will have a huge role to play in helping all kinds of people to make their way towards a new reality. This is not arts and health as “a panacea for social problems or an adjunct to clinical care. Rather it suggests that arts for health as a social movement has the potential to challenge mainstream economic and social policies driven by a bottom up approach focused on empowerment and explicitly engaged with political economy issues.”(5)
In Wales, the Well-Being of Future Generations Act legitimises that challenge to the economic and social status quo, positioning Wales as a progressive nation, with the arts and culture at its heart, working to build sustainable futures for its citizens and, through its global perspective and collaborations, for the world. As an outsider, it seems to me that this is surely the ground on which to build a generous, inclusive Welsh pride.
- Huw Vaughan Thomas, Reflecting on Year One: How Have Public Bodies Responded to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015? https://www.audit.wales/system/files/publications/reflecting-on-year-one-2018-english.pdf
- James Thompson, In Place of War, Cockcroft Rutherford Lecture 2013, https://youtu.be/jUER_7C4MnU
- Dominic Campbell, Co-founder of Creative Aging International has proposed four roles for the arts in responding to the pandemic – to amplify health messages, to foster connection, to collaborate with scientific innovation and to imagine and model the kinds of human and social transformation we want. Different people will be able with different paces, different kinds of practice and different kinds of communities to offer the artistic responses Dominic has outlined. See his contribution to the Virtual International Conference for Arts in Health (VICAH) Art Responders in Global Health Crisis
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxuXZjEqsOs at (1:21:00)
- Norma Daykin, Arts, Health and Well-Being: A Critical Perspective on Research, Policy and Practice (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020).