Taking a food-themed approach to this year’s Arts Development UK (AD:UK) conference, delegates were invited to ‘pick and mix’ from a ‘menu’ of ‘ingredients’, including training and case study sessions, to create a tailored ‘recipe’ of content and networking opportunities.

A smorgasbord of breakouts, training sessions and study tours provided plenty of opportunity for knowledge exchange on subjects as varied as ‘developing a cultural strategy’ to ‘doing digital’.

An open forum event incorporated a range of discussions topics of which a-n’s Paying Artists Campaign was one, and ‘information takeaways’ including a Granted taster session on crowd funding by WeDidThis founder Hen Norton, offered a chance to skill-up.

But the conference will perhaps be best remembered for its impressive keynote speeches. Peter Stark OBE, cultural policy analyst with GPS Culture (the team behind 2013’s Rebalancing our Cultural Capital report) and chair of Voluntary Arts, opened the event with a controversial address.

Drawing on his experience at both organisations, he focused on the opportunities and imbalances within cultural policies and funding practice, berating Arts Council England for its significant funding bias towards London – a situation which Stark believes is actually worsening.

Consider that National Lottery funding is supporting ballet and opera in the capital; this can only be described as a ‘trickling-up’ of resources, with lottery players subsidising the art forms of the already privileged. This gap in funding, the inequalities it exacerbates and the geographical and economic discrepancies in our experience of culture gave new context to the conference’s theme of ‘arts for life’.

On the question of what merits public funding, Stark said: “Remember, Noah was an amateur and the Titanic was built by professionals.” Alongside a fairer distribution of resources, he urged a rebalancing of the instrumental and intrinsic values of art – not privileging one over the other will be the key, he said.

England and Wales

From this point on, a theme that kept cropping up both in the content of the conference and in conversations throughout, were the differences between England and Wales. While England, for example, is lumbered with the widely despised policies of former education secretary Michael Gove, Arts Council of Wales (ACW) chair Dai Smith reminded us that, thanks to devolution, Wales “has the ability to act”.

Recognising the role the arts could play, the Welsh government has adopted ACW’s 12 recommendations for culture in education, making “creativity the DNA running through the curriculum to enhance all learning”. £20 million is to be invested in culture and education over the next five years.

This topic was picked up later by Laura H Drane, a Cardiff-based producer, consultant and project manager, who believes in putting the public and arts organisations at risk of change through encounters with the arts. She mentioned Stem to Steam, a US-based movement that aims to educate governments, the public and the media about the need to add ‘art’ to the core subjects of science, technology, English and maths.

Commit to culture

Despite the commitment of new investment in arts education in Wales, however, things are far from rosy in a country of only three million people. Against this backdrop, Smith unapologetically claimed that the arts are more important than sport – a field competing for a share in a very limited budget.

“Think of a country without culture,” he said. “There would be no heritage. Culture is not the cherry on the cake – it is the bloody cake!”

On the argument that health should come first he said: “What is the point of a fully functioning liver without a heart?” The arts, he argued, could facilitate fuller lives for people in Wales and they should be invested in.

Quoting from Raymond Williams’ wonderful 1958 essay, Culture is Ordinary, he said: “Culture is ordinary. That is where we must start.”

AD:UK conference, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 16-17 October 2014. artsdevelopmentuk.org