Last week, I closed Mermaid & Monster (M&M), a contemporary art agency based in Wales, after six enjoyable years. In that time, I worked with over 30 artists, showing their work at art fairs, or involving them in curated projects and exhibitions. Due to various factors, M&M was no longer in a position to continue.

The decision and the reaction to it, although not entirely unexpected or surprising, raises significant questions about the existing and future arts ecology in Wales. Although over-arching government cuts have created a harsh climate for the visual arts in the UK, there is something peculiar to Wales, not least the opportunities available for artists to build a sustainable career or rounded practice.

When we set up M&M six years ago, despite a number of regional artist-led galleries and agencies from across the UK exhibiting at contemporary art fairs (initially at the satellite events before stepping up), Wales didn’t have one outlet representing artists. With the demise of M&M’s current incarnation, the country still doesn’t have one. Whilst this raises the question of the regional marketplace, it highlights a gap in the infrastructure, especially in the context of opportunities for artists to show outside Wales.

It’s important to say that things are a whole lot better than ten or 15 years ago, but that shouldn’t allow for a resting on laurels. M&M was launched against the backdrop of Wales at Venice, Artes Mundi, a new wing at the National Museum, and a proposed National Gallery of Contemporary Art.

Intertwined into these top down and obviously expensive ventures, the Arts Council of Wales (ACW) will always (rightly) be a frontline target for debate and gnashing of teeth, which it handles with advocacy and aplomb. Gallery provision is perhaps on the low side in Wales, as are influential artist-led galleries and groups. Despite having no national public art agency, independents have grown in its place. Add in available funds, such as ACW’s much admired Creative Wales Award for individual artists, and everything would seem to be rosy in the garden.

However, cracks are starting to appear. Cuts are affecting participation in the arts across the board. The colleges are no longer a significant influence (always an important block in the arts ecology). Many have cut whole departments; Newport University is closing the entire Fine Art course.

In a further hit to the city, the temporary exhibitions programme at Newport Museum and Gallery was closed with immediate effect and the position of Visual Arts Officer scrapped. (A petition has been launched in an attempt to reverse the decision.) On the day M&M announced its closure, the National Museum and Galleries of Wales announced that 35 jobs are to go, with a further 160 appraisals and £2.5m of cuts.

Rungs on the ladder too far apart

Artes Mundi remains, with debatable worth to the local ecosystem, and recently asked for more funds. The new contemporary gallery is still a pipe dream. Wales at Venice provides an important aspiration for artists and curators, but ACW currently has a strange policy of only allowing its revenue funded clients to apply for the job. This feels like an unnecessary restriction on what is to date a successful venture.

The rest of the infrastructure (apart from some notable, hardworking organisations and artists) is littered apologetically with potholes. The rungs on the ladder are too far apart. There are too many at the top, quite a few at the bottom, but not many inbetween. Artists are doing twice the work for half of the reward. Many have kept Wales’ visual art heart beating through some dark days, perhaps to the detriment of their own practice. There is a huge amount of pro bono work done by artists and groups, which is commendable, but means artists are perhaps not valued as highly, or rather they are taken for granted; always ready to do the dirty work for little or no money.

With the arts ecology fragile at best, there is a danger of conservatism becoming the default position. Nobody seems confident of rocking the boat for fear of losing their footing. With at best just one of everything, there is no sense of competition, little in the way of critical debate and a timid politeness that lends itself to a lack of ambition and a very badly networked art scene – locally, nationally and internationally.

There is an unheard, unseen mentality which seems to hang in the air like a fog. We all have a responsibility to change this, to shout louder and more eloquently, to be more ambitious and courageous. It’s important to hear these voices without fear of embarrassment, comeback or damage. In times of hardship, it is difficult to protest and survive, but it is essential in order to ensure a thriving visual arts scene. With cuts accentuating the haves against the have-nots and promoting divide and rule, these voices need to be louder than ever.

More on

A new landscape for Wales – cuts to Arts Council of Wales revenue clients in December 2010.

Exhibitions are not enough – Reyahn King explores the role of galleries within professional development for visual artists.