Thursday, May 04, 2006

Policy Review Working Party- an invitation and proposal

Believing that there is a pressing need for artists and arts organisations to develop a set of ideas about the value and purpose of the work they do, in order to make meaningful and informed interventions into future policy development and consultation processes, Belfast Exposed proposes setting up a Policy Review Working Party. The purpose of the working party would be to open up informed debate through critical review of arts and cultural policy, identifying and wherever possible, establishing areas of common ground within the visual arts sector.

We may not discover a consensus of opinion across this extremely diverse sector, on the other hand we may well discover points of convergence and areas of shared concern. At the very least we would learn more about each other’s thinking and ways of working as well as creating a space where information and ideas can be shared.

We suggest bringing together a group of around 6-8 people and Belfast Exposed is offering take the lead on setting the agenda for initial discussions. However group members should be prepared to take ownership of the process and put forward their own ideas for discussion and analysis, based on practical experience and individual knowledge and concerns.

Meetings would begin with a member of the group making an initial presentation around a chosen topic. Meetings would be chaired and minuted. While the discussions will benefit from being ‘off the record’ (the Chatham House rule will be applied), it is hoped that the group will finally publish a discussion paper for the scrutiny of the wider arts sector at which point some kind of shared strategy might be developed, through work-shopping the ideas in an open forum. We would like to get the group underway as soon as possible with a view to publishing a discussion paper by the end of September 06.

The first discussion is proposed for Friday 12th May at 4.00-5.30 pm at Belfast Exposed gallery, 23 Donegall Street, Belfast, focussing on the following set of questions:

Arts Council NI has acknowledged the strategic implications of its decision to shut down the Ormeau Baths Gallery in terms of the opportunity the closure presented to “ broaden the appeal of this particular gallery space to the wider public and to provide greater opportunities to artists”.

What is the validity of this statement in relation to the OBG’s programming and commissioning record? In a more general context, what does ‘broadening the appeal’ of an arts organisation actually mean, what does it involve and how is it measured? Finally, in what ways do definitions and strategies for accessibility impact on the role and function of artists and arts organisations?

I propose to offer a short opening presentation, but the main purpose is to get a discussion going around the table and to generate ideas for future debate.

If you have a background in the arts, either at a practical or policy level, and feel you could commit 3 hours a month to take part in meetings between May and September, and are prepared to take an active role in presenting and developing ideas, please give me a call or send an email no later than Monday 8 May. In the meantime if you would like to know more don’t hesitate to call:

Pauline Hadaway
Director
Belfast Exposed


T: +44 028 9023 1623
E: director@belfastexposed.org

from Miriam de Búrca to DCAL 27th April 2006

From: Miriam de Búrca
> Date: 27 April 2006 15:12:16 IST
> To: Lowe, Catherine, DCAL
> Subject: Re: Private Office
>
> Dear Catherine Lowe,
>
> Thank you for your response. I appreciate what you are saying, but I
> fear you misunderstand the source of my concern. It is not only about
> the need to reinstate a setup that is to serve the arts community. I'm
> sure it will be of use in some shape or form. Who exactly it is to
> serve, and how effectively it will be run, remains to be seen.
>
> What my source of frustration is, firstly, how this entire affair has
> been handled by the Arts Council, since they, in the follow-up period
> to the abrupt closure of the OBG, made demands of Hugh Mulholland and
> his staff, which they did and do not of other organisations in
> similar, or even worse predicaments. That in itself is worthy of
> further investigation as it implies irregularities in their
> decision-making process, and also points to a hidden motive to which
> they are not openly admitting.
>
> Also what worries me, is the implication of a government funded body
> such as the ACNI being permitted to act in such a manner thanks to
> what appears to be a laissez faire approach of the funders' funders,
> namely yourselves. Do these aggressive and untransparent methods of
> control set the standard for the arts in Northern Ireland, and for
> things to come?
>
> Finally, the most telling display of lack of objectivity is the
> omission of direct engagement with those affected by the closure and
> loss of the OBG as it existed under Hugh's directorship.
>
> Hugh and supporters of his have been trying to organise a meeting with
> the Arts Council for well over a month, so that questions may be asked
> and answers supplied, with independent bodies to witness the
> discussion. The letter requesting a meeting has not even been
> acknowledged, let alone a date set.
>
> The only democratic response to the protest would be for DCAL to
> organise a meeting between the Minister, Hugh Mulholland and the
> former staff of OBG.
>
> That way, both cases will finally have been heard. It is simply not
> enough to take only the Arts Council's word. It is, like any
> organisation, comprised of individuals who are not infallible or
> beyond error.
>
> Yours sincerely
>
> Miriam de Búrca
>
>

reply to DCAL from Miriam De Búrca 24th April 2006

From: Miriam de Búrca
> Date: 24 April 2006 17:25:30 IST
> To: "Hunter, Maggie"
> Subject: Re: Ormeau Baths Gallery
>

Dear Maggie Hunter,

I do not wish to shoot the messenger, but this consistent display of
one-sidedness is just so infuriating. Have you and your Minister
arrived at these conclusions of "problems in governance, management and
financial deficit" independently of the Arts Council? I wonder, because
I hear an echo in the room..

Have you read the letters written in opposition? Can you please confirm
that you have? Because I still don't see your reply as a reasonable
explanation. I still only see an Arts Council that has abused its
position of power to achieve its strategic aims while dressing it up in
elusive rhetoric.

Sincerely

Miriam de Búrca

letter Dept.Culture,Arts and Leisure to Miriam De Burca

Department of Culture Arts and Leisure,
Interpoint, York Street, Belfast BT15 1AQ.

24th April, 2006


Dear Ms De Burca,

Thank you for your further email to the Minister's Private secretary regarding the closure of the Ormeau Baths Gallery. I have been asked to reply.

As previously stated, the Arts Council did not take the decision to cease funding OBG lightly. Problems in governance, management and financial deficit proved insurmountable.

The Arts Council is working with a number of partners towards re-opening the gallery facilities in OBG. Some functions of the gallery are already up and running and the Arts Council is confident that it will re-open to the public in the summer with a full exhibition programme.

The Arts Council is currently directly managing the gallery. However, it is their intention that it should be managed by an independent entity and that in the future it will serve a broad audience as well as the diverse range of practices that make up the visual arts.

I hope you will find this information useful.

yours sincerely,
Hazel Campbell

Sunday, April 30, 2006

From Belfast Exposed Photography on the closure of the Ormeau Baths Gallery

Until its sudden closure on March 1st, the Ormeau Baths Gallery (OBG) had been Northern Ireland’s principal visual arts venue and one of Ireland’s leading contemporary arts spaces. With its ambitious curatorial policy and intelligent programming, OBG, under the directorship of Hugh Mulholland, helped put Northern Irish visual arts practice on the map, presenting the work of major international artists alongside regional artists in a mix of solo and group shows across a range of art disciplines.

Hugh Mullholland’s work for Northern Irish artists in last year’s Venice Biennale was impressive, while the latest show, Masters: 25 Years On, subsequently left hanging behind the locked doors of the city centre gallery, celebrated the diversity of work produced during 25 years of the Masters of Fine Art course at the University of Ulster, many of whose graduates subsequently went on to develop international careers. Quite apart from the local impact of staff redundancies and interruption of services to artists and audiences, the sudden removal of Hugh Mullholland and surprise closure of such a high profile gallery has inevitably done great harm to Northern Ireland’s international reputation, severing carefully constructed networks and partnerships and further isolating an under funded, under acknowledged and virtually invisible arts community at home.

In the immediate aftermath of closure, ACNI defended its decision to withdraw funding from OBG, citing an “ongoing financial deficit position, alongside a lack of confidence in the governance of the company and their ability to make the gallery viable” (1). ACNI also stated their “deep regret” for the gallery’s closure, stressing that it been forced to act as a consequence of the OBG Board’s decision to elect for voluntary insolvency.

Inevitably, in the light of OBG’s 2004 decision to opt out of plans for a proposed multi media arts centre, ACNI’s expressions of regret have provoked a certain amount of cynicism, arising from a belief among many in the arts community that the Arts Council’s decision to pull funding was informed by political rather than procedural imperatives. In other words the OBG closed because the Arts Council withdrew moral and financial support, which might have been forthcoming (as it has been past and present for lots of organisations in substantially worse financial straits), had the gallery demonstrated greater enthusiasm for Arts Council strategies around accessibility and sustainability.

Whatever the individual intentions of Arts Council members, and even accepting that there is no evidence of collective ill will, it must be clear that there is a political dimension to the act of closure if only in its aftermath. For while ACNI strongly refutes allegations that it was “out to get” the OBG, it acknowledges the strategic implications of the decision to shut the gallery down, which its says, “represents an opportunity to broaden the appeal of this particular gallery space to the wider public and to provide greater opportunities to artists”. (my italics)

Whatever the procedural circumstances, personality clashes or individual failings surrounding the OBG’s closure, the fact that Belfast’s most prestigious contemporary arts space had to shut its doors in this manner raises important questions around the way cultural policy works in shaping the cultural landscape and defining the role of the gallery. Where do artists and curators fit within newly evolving political and cultural arrangements? How should galleries define their publics? How does a strategy for ‘broadening appeal’ impact on programming? Who determines the future role of the gallery? Have galleries got a future as autonomous public spaces? These questions, which drive so much contemporary cultural policy, are rarely addressed by artists and arts workers on their own terms, independent of externally orientated consultation processes or outside moments of crisis.

There is surely a pressing need for artists and arts organisations to develop a set of ideas about the value and purpose of the work they do, in order to make meaningful and informed interventions into future policy development and consultation processes. To this purpose, Belfast Exposed is proposing a Policy Review Working Party, with a view to opening up informed debate through critical review of arts and cultural policy, identifying and wherever possible, establishing areas of common ground within the visual arts sector. We may not discover a consensus of opinion across this extremely diverse sector, on the other hand we may well discover points of convergence and areas of shared concern. At the very least we would learn more about each other’s thinking and ways of working as well as creating a space where information and ideas can be shared.

In doing so, I believe we could make a significant contribution towards building confidence, improving working relationships, challenging self interest and shaping policy in ways which are constructive and of benefit to all.

Information on the Working Party is posted separately.

(1) Regarding the closure of the Ormeau Baths Gallery (Feb 28 2006); http://www.artscouncil-ni.org/news/2006

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Letter of Concern from Aoife Desmond, Dublin Based Artist

I'm writing to express my shock and regret at the closure of the Ormeau Baths Gallery. I support both the institution and Hugh Mulholland as a director. I see the sudden closure as un-necessary and ultimately harmful to the art scene in Northern Ireland, as it's pre-dominate space is now gone.

I hope you will review the situation and continue to fund the OBG and negotiate fair terms for the survival of this important arts space and director.


yours sincerely,

Aoife Desmond, Dublin based artist.