Friday, March 10, 2006

Letter of Concern from Brian Connolly, Artist and Northern Ireland Representative Visual Artists Ireland

Dear

The sudden closure of the Ormeau Baths Gallery last Wednesday comes as a complete shock to the Visual Artists across Ireland and is a great cause of concern for practitioners here in Northern Ireland and many of them have made their concerns known to me as the Northern Irish Representative of the Visual Artists Ireland.

I do not pretend to know the full detail of the machinations behind the scenes, which lead to the sudden closure of the Ormeau Baths Gallery, however, that which I do know through my consultation has worried me greatly. I therefore wish to register my protest at the closure of the Ormeau Baths Gallery, and the manner in which this has been achieved.

I am aware that to date the Arts Council of Northern Ireland have made several public statements and I have endeavored to update my letter as information changes. It is my understanding that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland by their withholding of funding, in effect left the Board of the OBG – (Ormeau Baths Gallery for short), with no other option but to close. It is therefore rather disingenuous of the ACNI – (Arts Council of Northern Ireland in short), to make a statement in which you state: “The ACNI is saddened by the decision of the Chair of the OBG to announce the closure of the Gallery. However, given the company’s inability to reduce it’s longstanding financial deficit or to sustain the gallery space as a viable arts venue, we agreed to help the OBG to wind-down it’s affairs in an orderly, business-like manner.”(*1)

I do not conclude from your statement, nor agree, that the sudden closure of the OBG and dismissal of its Staff, with but a few days notice, is any “help in winding-down the affairs of the OBG in an orderly, business-like manner”. In fact, I see this action as quite the opposite, it appears both brutal and callous, and as such, it sends out all the wrong signals across the Visual Arts Sector in Northern Ireland. Is this really what the ACNI wanted to achieve? Can you really afford to alienate a significant part of the Professional Art Sector in this manner?

If the ACNI were in fact really wishing to help the OBG “wind-down its affairs in an orderly and business like manner”, you would surely not have taken the course of action chosen. If you, the ACNI, were wishing to do, as you stated in the quote above, you would have continued to fund and work with the Board & Management of the gallery in the short term in order to run out the course of the following exhibition commitments. This would have enabled you, the OBG Board, and its Management to develop new plans in consultation with the Visual Artists in the Sector and enable a new cohesive body to be developed over the following months. This process would have been feasible and less damaging to all concerned i.e. the forthcoming Exhibiting Artists, Gallery Management, Gallery Board, Interested Members of the public, and the Visual Arts sector as a whole.

Within the correspondence that I have received I have been made aware that something of this nature was actually in hand, and that the Board and Management of the OBG was actively in the process of “Restructuring”, (at the request of the ACNI in September 2005). If this is indeed the case, it makes the recent ACNI actions very puzzling and even more worrying. It certainly does not appear as a supportive nor hands-off approach towards the provision for and “commitment towards the maintenance of independent public gallery provision in the city” (2), nor does it back up your statement that your “principal objective” is to “secure ongoing gallery provision.” (*3)

Many of us are aware that the rent of the OBG is/was very high, and that this fact alone has made financial “solvency and independence” very difficult if not practically impossible. It is therefore gratifying to be able to congratulate Hugh Mullholland, the Director of the Gallery, his staff, and the Board, for making the OBG such a successful venue over the years, given the financial millstone that they inherited year to year.

Ironically, many practicing artists protested to the ACNI about the wisdom of this proposed move. At that time artists already understood that the proposed venue would probably be compromised by debt and that independence would be rendered virtually impossible. It is therefore very disturbing and disappointing that the ACNI have chosen to withdraw funding now based on “non viability and “financial deficit”, a situation that the Gallery has inherited as a result of your own past actions!

The ACNI’s original statement is brief, and on one hand it could be seen as a means of sparing the ‘supposed’ guilty parties the full glare of public humiliation. However, on the other hand, those referred to in the statement, as “staff” do not appear to me to be skulking in a dark corner somewhere away from the media glare, but quite the contrary. The Management of the OBG appears to be upstanding and answerable to all allegations, and indeed are making counter-allegations and offering differing readings of the facts. This makes me wonder as to the function of the original ACNI’s statement.

On re-examination, the original ACNI statement on the closure of the OBG is speckled with innuendo, hints, and half allegations, without listing any data. It could therefore be read as a very divisive statement, designed specifically to fling mud without any means of re-dress or accountability. It appears therefore as a very underhand tactic used as ‘smoke and mirrors’ to deflect attention from the ACNI’s role in the matter! It only serves to diminish my confidence in the management of that organisation. I now wonder what you/ACNI can or will do to restore my trust, and that of the sector as a whole?

In the original Statement you/ACNI cite that you are, “actively exploring options with potential partners in the visual arts sector and are confident that the gallery space will re-open under new management as soon as possible.” (*4) Since you have clearly damaged you reputation among the majority of the Professional Visual Artist Practitioners in Belfast and across Northern Ireland, how do you propose to regain their trust and their eventual input into any new gallery and management structure? Are you now prepared to alienate the Professional Practitioners in the VAS – (Visual Art Sector for short), in favor of Part-time practitioners & hobbyists? Surely, this goes against all the ACNI’s aims and objectives over the last 10-15 years. How will the ACNI ensure the support of the contemporary professional artist practitioners in any new venture, which they, (ACNI), orchestrate, or implement and support?

Your next move is a crucial one and one that I hope you have thought through very carefully. You have already alarmed and potentially alienated the majority of the Younger Professional Artists in your jurisdiction, (not including myself!), and I am sure you do not want to make matters worse. If this is the case, I suggest that you convene an open meeting, or series of meetings, with practitioners within the sector, to discuss the future of the Gallery; it is management, its artistic role, remit, and evolution, etc. in an open and unscripted way.

In no way should you take the easy option, to hand the management reins over to some third party, as this will only serve to drive a wedge further into the Visual Arts Sector and create great bitterness for years to come.

I feel that before the ACNI acts to replace the gap left by the loss of the OBG it needs to re-establish confidence from within the arts community/VAS. The only way it can do this is to engage in open discussion with the arts sector about what has happened, and to answer the concerns of the VAS. It is also imperative that any new venture should have a diverse range of practising Artists on its Board of Management. Only then, can we move forward without bitterness and acrimony, and regain a fully functioning Contemporary Art Gallery in Belfast.

Yours sincerely
Brian Connolly
Northern Ireland Representative
Visual Artists Ireland

2 Carnlelis Rd.
Bushmills
Co Antrim
BT57 8XZ

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