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);


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