Friday, March 10, 2006

Letter of Concern from Stephen Snoddy, Director, The New Art Gallery, Walsall

Dear All,

Please read statements below.

OBG says Yes, ACNI says No .

This is a situation in which the Arts Council of NI should be asking itself serious questions of its tone of leadership and of the way it has treated its key contemporary visual arts client in NI. It is clear that the ACNI has been 'gunning for' Hugh Mulholland over the last couple of years and by creating 'smoke-screens' one could even call it vindictive. Public Funders are meant to be constructive, 'hands off' and engage in a professional manner to the organisations they fund. By withdrawing the ACNI revenue funding (£300,000 was earmarked for 2006/7, c 75% of its turnover) the Board of OBG had no option but to cease trading or they would have been in breach of their responsibilities as trustees.

The ACNI have been demonstrably aggressive, interfering and taken up an active position of discrediting the OBG for reasons that appear to be one of 'pique' because the OBG Board decided not to become part of the Arts Centre planned for Talbot Street. A project that has never been properly thought through, was ill conceived therefore calls into question the Arts Council NI's judgement on the misguided notion of a 'one shoe fits all' arts centre. Belfast has a series of small independent arts venues and organisations which I suggest is its strength. While 'signature' venues have their place it is the plethora of different scales of arts organisations that bind a community together and create a solid base. The OBG was not the only organisation to make this decision.

This is the only Gallery in Northern Ireland that has an international programme for contemporary art and Hugh was also the Commissioner for the very successful NI Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale. A proud event for the visual arts in NI and one in which to build upon. I for one was delighted to attend and feel honoured that perhaps I had in a tiny way through my own career outside NI helped in this process and occasion. It felt that NI had arrived to be considered as part of the international agenda of contemporary art.

As Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive, ACNI said in her introduction in the 'The Nature of Things', Venice Biennial catalogue, 'The Northern Ireland representation at the Venice Biennale reflects this flourishing arts scene as well as the new aspirations of a society ready to show the world another face - that of a culturally and artistically mature society.' The way the ACNI have treated OBG is not the actions of a culturally and artistically mature arts funder. The ACNI have acted with bad grace - as Ann Widdacombe once said of Michael Howard, 'there is something of the night about him'.

Can you imagine Manchester without Cornerhouse, Bristol without Arnolfini, Oxford without MAO, Birmingham without Ikon? This is the situation that Belfast (and NI) faces.

The Art College in Belfast has successfully finished its Phase 1 expansion - what does this ACNI decision tell the students about their future in Belfast. I remember buying Francesco Clemente a pint of Guinness in the Crown Bar after his Exhibition Preview in 1984, curating a Jack B. Yeats exhibition in 1995 and welcoming Gilbert & George to Belfast in 1999 for the Belfast Festival exhibition and an artist such as Phil Collins who is developing an international reputation and is an MA graduate from Belfast College of Art has greatly benefited from the OBG.

The ACNI has also recently spent £40,000 on 2 consultants reports in 2005, a 'Value For Money' report on OBG (£18,000) and a report on Visual Arts provision in Belfast (£22,000). These reports have not been distributed and I doubt whether the ACNI has taken on board the recommendations. On VFM, given my wide experience of working at Arnolfini, Cornerhouse, Southampton CAG, Milton Keynes Gallery, BALTIC and now New Art Gallery Walsall the OBG represents REAL VFM. A case in point is that it only has 4 staff. What it needs is more resources and support.

It is not in the interests of the artists of NI and beyond for the OBG to be closed down within 2 days. Any break in provision is damaging and to potentially replace it with anything that is not contemporary will further exacerbate the situation. To fill the OBG space with the Royal Ulster Academy annual exhibition is an easy option but philosophically the wrong one and goes against the ACNI's own policy for the contemporary visual arts. A dilution of the contemporary is to lose all credence.

If the ACNI's concerns are a question of governance and accountability then I advise you to look up the ACNI's website www.artscouncil-ni.org home page under Governance and Accountability. With some real irony the website says it is 'under development'. There are ordered processes for changes of governance and succession planning but it seems that the ACNI did not accept that the OBD's governance was currently 'under development'.

I urge you to express your support for Hugh and the staff at OMB by emailing Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive at chief@artscouncil-ni.org cc to Noirin McKinney, Director Arts Development n.mckinney@artscouncil-ni.org and Iain Davidson, Visual Arts Officer i.davidson@artscouncil-ni.org and the Chair, Rosemary Kelly a.boyd@artscouncil-ni.org .

Please send this email onto others who you may think would be interested.

many thanks

Stephen Snoddy,
Director,
The New Art Gallery,
Walsall

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