Sunday, March 19, 2006

Ruminations on ACNI and OBG from Slavka Sverakova

Ruminations on ACNI and OBG.

I could not be present in person in the rallies, meetings and demonstrations. This does not mean that I do not support all those actions, namely that, what ACNI labels “…a small campaign on behalf of the OBG staff.”

Well, it may be small in numbers, arts are often on margins of a society's interests, but it is not just a campaign on behalf of four persons who face unemployment. Arts do not have the power of, say, a Royal Mail, to disrupt life of a large number of others by taking a strike action.

I have written to five persons involved in the ACNI action. I think it is an unprofessional behaviour that none of them e-mailed me back.

For longer than the three years of ACNI’s encouraging OBG “ improve their financial situation and their corporate governance” (see ACNI answer to Q 4&5 in blue on their statement published online), I observed a continuous erosion in confidence- and not just amongst artists- in the ACNI as the best model for support of arts. It was observable, but because of the lack of transparency in their decision making, elusive to an in depth analysis.

The case of the OBG sudden closure illustrates pertinently why I do not share the view that ACNI is as perfect and faultless as they assert to be.

Let me elaborate:

1. ACNI says that they have experienced a failure in getting the OBG to have a “strategic plan, a business plan and financial recovery plan” for some THREE YEARS. They still funded it for three years without those plans??? This points either to indecisiveness of ACNI or to the lack of ethical ground for being decisive. ACNI withdrew with an immediate effect both funding and responsibility for the obvious consequences. A case of symmetry – alas, so disappointing…

2. Why I do not believe the ACNI's claim that they did not mean to induce that traumatic event? Because they had collapsed the expected, i.e. an open and well managed debate with and a possible serious warning to their client, and the unexpected, i.e. the immediate cut off funds knowing that OBG had no alternatives. The OBG Board understandably surrendered to the threat involved. The question remains why ACNI chose an aggressive and oppressive mode of work? Arts Councils in the UK are meant to be enabling structures. In this case, what has been enabled by the closure of an important gallery in the middle of a significant exhibition of art whose creators all spent their formative time in Belfast?

3. My next point relates to a principle and to ACNI's role in selecting and/or approving the OBG Board's members. They now claim that they actively seek the replacement of the OBG management team. If ACNI has such a power and responsibility in initiating stages it seems to me very probable that ACNI's responsibility in a closure stage is not out of question. It would appear that ACNI consider the “arm-length” principle unreasonably elastic. Further: if ACNI has a say who becomes a member of OBG Board do their criteria include experience in running a company and taking the risks involved?

4. ACNI sees the solution for the “financial issues” in a change of OBG management team. It may or may not bring about better accountancy. ACNI’s “Dear Client” circular of 01.02.2006 absolves Hugh Mulholland from any other flaws; moreover, it credits him as a curator. While I do not dispute the financial discipline as basic to the practical running of a gallery, I do not see it as the one reason a society pays or does not pay for a venue or pays or does not pay a talented personality. The ACNI’s failure to avoid a traumatic and dramatic solution and unwillingness to select a more appropriate tool than an immediate cutting of support betrays a serious absence of reflective thinking. The ACNI’s claim “”We are committed to ensuring that Belfast City will have a flagship contemporary visual arts gallery that is properly run and has a broad appeal to a local and international audience and represents the very best local and international artists” sounds hollow. They had OBG and failed to ensure its existence. Nowhere accessible ACNI says that OBG failed in pursuing that “broad appeal”, which ACNI now want to guarantee. Moreover, it cannot be guaranteed by a change of a director and the three staff member.

I wonder : i/ if ACNI commissioned a Value for Money report on their own work;

ii/if the Forensic Audit of OBG for the reported £ 15 000 had been the "value-for-money" in the way it was
tendered and applied;

iii/ if ACNI researched the ways in which audiences in places with a long history of terrorism may turn to art,
and to visual contemporary art in particular.

What is the case in each of these instances?

In conclusion: I do not want an apology for ACNI’s lacking dignity and respect for the MFA course (the exhibition now inaccessible), with which I was associated almost as long as the three course directors. I do, instead, support the re-instatement of the OBG staff until the wider issues concerning Arts Council are properly resolved. I do not doubt that there is a better model, a less expensive and a less hierarchical distributor of the taxpayers support for arts. Not only that, I would hope to get one capable of conceptual thought and creative application.

Slavka Sverakova, 5th March 2006


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