Last month I completed the Welsh Arts Critics' Development Programme with Wales Arts International and Visiting Arts. Four new critics - Lowri Hâf Cooke, Amelia Forsbrook, Dylan Moore and myself - took part in the 6-month programme which was designed to develop coverage and critical discussion of Welsh arts.
In the beginning...
It began with a two day intensive workshop with former arts journalist Linda Christmas, renowned cultural commentator Jon Gower and programme mentors Jasmine Donahaye (then editor, Planet Magazine) and Elisabeth Mahoney (theatre and radio critic, The Guardian). The workshop and subsequent bespoke programme provided an opportunity to critique work together and explore the role of the art critic.
Each of the new critics was paired with an experienced mentor for 1:1 support over the programme. I was incredibly pleased to be paired with Elisabeth Mahoney, who has proved invaluable to me over the six month period, correcting a few of my bad habits that had slipped in over years of freelancing and teaching me the skills of powerful pitching at a national and international level. As Elisabeth has written about a broad range of arts, she was the best match for me, as I also have broader cultural interests spanning visual arts, literature, music and performance.
The scheme enabled each critic to take two overseas trips, and also gifted us with a weekend in Edinburgh for the festivals to see Welsh theatre in the British Council Showcase -- The Dark Philosophers and Llwyth -- and anything else we could cram in whilst we were there. You can see my blog about this here, and read my art reviews of Ingrid Calame and Martin Creed.
Georgia on my mind
For my first trip abroad I opted to attend a fairly new annual international visual arts festival -- Artisterium IVin Tbilisi, Georgia. I was interested in developing my understanding of the international arts scene, and also fascinated by Georgia as a place finding it's feet, culturally, post-Soviet occupation. Especially after reading these articles:
Lois Williams and Antonia Dewhurst were representing Wales at Artisterium IV, and they were curated by Martin Barlow, former director of Oriel Mostyn. The programme covered a short trip to Tibilisi where I got to meet and chat to the artists and Martin, see the show being set up and attend the opening. I was also able to attend several of the other international exhibitions at Artisterium IV and I was introduced to a number of other Georgian artists including Wato Tsereteli who set up the Center of Contemporary Art in Tbilisi and Misha Shengelia who recently had an exhibition at Oriel Mostyn. Another reason for choosing this trip was that Oriel Mostyn had planned a group show with Georgian artists to run between March and May 2012, so I saw longevity to the relationships I was forging on the visit, and had planned to write a critical essay on the partnership. Unfortunately the Mostyn exhibition has been delayed until 2013, thus so have my plans with this. Still, when Wato Tsereteli showed me around the Center of Contemporary Art, which includes fantastic project space and an artists' resource centre, he mentioned that they were in talks with Bristol's Spike Island about forging some sort of artist in residence exchange scheme, so I am interested to see if this develops.
Hey hey Hay
For my second trip overseas I chose to travel to India for Hay Festival Kerala, a three day literature festival featuring local and international writers. I had chosen the trip as I was interested in the The British Council's India Wales Writers Chain programme that was taking place in Kerala directly before the festival, and I have also harboured a long love of Asian fiction. As well as Hay International Fellows Jon Gower and Tiffany Murray, there were some great speakers booked to appear at the event from Germaine Greer and Simon Armitage to Jung Chang, K. Satchidanandan, Andrew Miller and Agnes Desarthe. It also offered brilliant networking opportunities, and I was able to interview Jung Chang and Simon Armitage, as well as meet Telegraphjournalists and blog for the Hay Kerala festival website.
As well as these trips, I have been interviewing and reviewing for a number of publications over the period of the programme. This includes articles for literary journal The Raconteur during my time as Associate Editor with them for the America issue, book reviews for Planet Magazine and New Welsh Review, and reviews of pantomimes, theatre, opera and dance for industry bible The Stage who I now regularly write for. I've popped most of these up as an archive on my Art Log on the Culture Colony Site.
So, what next? I am continuing to review, with pieces coming up for The Stage and Sabotage this week, and my current guest blogging stint with Mslexia. I also run literary salons in Swansea and Cardiff and have some other arty projects up my sleeves. I certainly feel confident in my writing and critical ability after participating in the scheme. Where I lack confidence is in the number of professional outlets for critical writing about the arts in Wales, both within Wales and beyond our borders. And don't get me started on the 'apparent lack of women reviewers'. I have pitched good pitches to national newspapers and magazines that have elicited either no response, or rude, abrupt, negative responses. London, often, is simply not interested in what we have happening here. And so much good quality work is happening here. Within Wales we do not have a broadsheet newspaper with intelligent critical debate and coverage. Listings magazines like Buzz are, in the main, written by students, for free and generally preview rather than review work which means the bulk of the info comes from press releases not engagement. Other What's On guides are mostly made up of adverts and advertorials. Indeed I used to write for such places, also for free, but I no longer choose to do so.Somebody has to start to value words and good writing.
There are other issues, including national and local publications slashing the budgets for their arts coverage, so that if you see people who aren't journalists providing content for them, you'll probably find there is some vested interest - an event being promoted, for example - that works as pay. Timings can be a pain, also. If you want an essay to run in New Welsh Review or Planet you often have to pitch it a year in advance, and their subscription numbers are far lower than they should be, which means they can only survive thanks to financial assistance from the Welsh Books Council. We are not encouraging good criticism to flourish, because there is little or no pay or place for it. Culture Colony does offer a place, of course, but from a professional perspective, it still flags up similar no-pay issues. There are also more ingrained problems where people who become experts in their fields, no longer feel they can publish critical pieces about the arts and particular artists in Wales in case they bump into them in Chapter/ the pub later that day, yet this is an issue for all arts scenes and regions, and can and should be overcome here.
Is there really a demand for good criticism in Wales then? Perhaps all the above points to the fact that the readers, or at least the required number of readers to make any such project viable, are not there or are not willing to spend the cash on such writing. The latter may be true, indeed this is something that all arts criticism and journalism is struggling to address in these digital times, but I do think there is a desire for more quality critical engagement with the arts in Wales. Certainly the lack of decent criticism is something that the arts sector as a whole is feeling. Anyone who was at the New Critics Day run by National Theatre Wales and Literature Wales knows this. It probably has a lot to do with why Wales Arts International and National Theatre Wales have both set up their own critics development schemes in recent years. There may well be a case for new ways of critical dialogue, debates and dialogue occuring with theatre companies, galleries, artists and makers both during the creative process, and after it. Intimate conversations, live panel debates and podcasts. However, in the press and more broadly, training up new critics isn't the main barrier we have to tackle. There are people who can write and enter into critical debate and discourse here in Wales. What we need more of is (a) a valuing of arts criticism, (b) professional platforms where it can flourish, independently from vested interests, funding bodies and institutions, and (c) willing readers. Otherwise nothing will change.
You can keep track of all my future work, creative and journalistic over at http://susiewild.blogspot.com/ (there are also lots of links and articles on arts criticism in the archive there) and follow me on Twitter @Soozerama