Yesterday, we discovered that Kully Thiairai is the new Artistic Director of National Theatre Wales.
In many respects, it’s a great appointment as it shows how NTW are prepared to defy expectations and it is a truly significant moment when an Asian woman becomes one of the leaders of a national arts organisation. Lots of people have focussed on these factors and welcomed the appointment. For example, Huw Thomas – BBC Wales Arts and Media Correspondent – ran a story about the impact of women leading many of the main producing venues in Wales. It feels like Wales is blazing a trail when it comes to gender balance and equality. It should be a cause of great satisfaction and encouragement that sparky, intelligent and talented people from diverse backgrounds see such opportunities within their reach.
However, there was also a quieter, more disappointed response that focussed on the failure of the arts sector in Wales to provide candidates who are equal to these challenges and achieve similar success. One person noted that all but one of the national companies are run by “imported” people and asked why Welsh talent is not being developed. It is a reasonable question, but I believe we have to be extremely careful here. Kully is a thoroughly generous, responsive and inclusive person with incredible integrity and insight. She commands enormous respect from those who know her. Personally, it matters to me less that she is Asian, female or from England than that her leadership is so engaging, inclusive and nurturing. This debate has aired in Scotland occasionally and it has been pretty ugly at times. Vicky Featherstone referred to anti-English prejudice on leaving her post as Artistic Director of National Theatre Scotland. As one Asian MSP commented at the time, “It doesn’t matter where you come from – what matters is where we are going together as a nation.”
However, it doesn’t help anyone to sidestep issues of talent development and the potential of individuals who are already based in Wales to rise to the demands and challenges of leadership, if they choose to do so. Hand-in-hand with an openness and a tolerance of new influences – the advantages of a diverse, outward-facing culture – we must also invest in the capacity of people in Wales too. Glass ceilings are iniquitous – whoever they affect – and need smashing for all sorts of people to realise their ambitions and dreams. Otherwise, we start to cement another outdated narrative that has been all too easily assimilated – both here in Wales and beyond – that Welsh arts is under-performing, insular and lacking in quality – a bit rubbish, in fact.