Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Letter Sent To Prof. Ian Montgomery, Head of School of Art and Design, and Prof Robert Welch, Dean of Faculty of Arts, University of Ulster, Belfast

Dear Sirs,

As an artist exhibiting in the prematurely closed ‘Masters - Twenty Five Years On’ exhibition at Ormeau Baths Gallery, I am writing to request information on the University of Ulster’s intentions regarding the exhibition. I would also like to seek clarification of the University’s position regarding the sudden and shocking decision of the Arts Council Of Northern Ireland to withdraw funding from the Gallery.

I am an artist and curator from Belfast and completed my MA in Fine Art at the Faculty of Art and Design in 1994. I was a founder member of Catalyst Arts in 1992 and Director there between 1994-1996. I have been based in New York for the past seven years, having previously completed a year at the PS1 International Studio Residency in 1997.

I have continued to work closely with artists and arts organizations in Northern Ireland over the past seven years, both exhibiting my own work in Belfast, as well as programming exhibitions that have included the work of Northern Irish artists (and University of Ulster alumni) including Seamus Harahan, Susan MacWilliam, and Ciara Finnegan, at Spencer Brownstone Gallery, a contemporary art gallery in New York where I am an Associate Director.

I was thrilled to be asked by Hugh Mulholland to represent my MA year in the ‘Masters - Twenty Five Years On’ exhibition. Not only was it an opportunity to participate in the celebration of the MA course, it was also a career first for me, being able to show new work at Ormeau Baths Gallery. As a Northern Irish artist living in New York, Hugh and his Directorship of the Ormeau Baths (as well as his instigation of a Northern Irish presence at the Venice Biennale) has been one of those examples that I can point to with pride in indicating the quality of the visual arts and its infrastructure in Northern Ireland. Under Hugh Mulholland, Ormeau Baths Gallery has provided a platform for local visual artists that have gone on to establish international reputations (proving a key element in the recent successes of artists such as Phil Collins and Seamus Harahan), as well as collaborating with and supporting some of the remarkable small arts organizations in Northern Ireland, including Factotum and Visonic.

The past two weeks have been somewhat confusing for me, being at a physical distance from developments in Belfast. For one thing, it has been related to me that the University of Ulster has recently come to an arrangement with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to re-open the exhibition with temporary staff? I cannot believe that this could be true, but would ask you to confirm if this is indeed the case and, if so, what plans the University had to consult with the exhibiting artists on such a decision? Furthermore, I would like to make clear that I completely withdraw permission for my work to be exhibited in the exhibition in any reopened version that is not part of a reinstatement of Hugh Mulholland and his staff.

I admittedly find myself confused by the University’s position on these matters. The Cultural Development department is to be applauded on it’s work to bring about the ‘Masters - Twenty Five Years On’ exhibition - it was clearly a wonderful way to celebrate the MA Fine Art Course which has made a huge contribution to the visual arts in Northern Ireland and beyond. The decision to hold the exhibition at Ormeau Baths and have Hugh Mulholland act as curator of the show was obviously appropriate and one that, I assume, the University could have considered something of a coup. I am more than a little mystified, therefore, to find no reference whatsoever to the sudden closure of the gallery on the University’s website or to the University’s plans re: the exhibition in any reopened format (though I see you do find space to report on the latest exciting developments at the Belfast Print Workshop).

I would very much appreciate any clarification. Am I to assume that the University, having worked with Hugh Mulholland successfully to realize the exhibition (at, I believe, quite a last minute stage) is now supportive of the Arts Council’s decision to renege on Hugh and his achievements? It is certainly to be inferred if it is indeed true that the University endorses a reopened version of the exhibition that does not involve its curator.

Furthermore, the fact that the University’s Cultural Development department actually shares members with the Arts Council board itself certainly adds to the confusion. Even assuming the best of faith on the part of the University in this matter, it is hugely damaging to our image (as an alumnus I speak of the University as ‘ours’), to sit by mutely or, even worse, to connive in reopening the exhibition, at this pivotal moment for the visual arts in Northern Ireland.

I await your response with great concern.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Orange

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