Letter of Concern to Minister Hanson and Arts Council of Northern Ireland from Concerned Artists and University Lecturers
We, a group of concerned artists, many of whom are University lecturers, are writing to register our great concern at the recent and sudden removal of funding from the Ormeau Baths Gallery, which resulted in its closure and the immediate loss of the staff jobs.
The Ormeau Baths Gallery has a national and international identity and reputation. Its dedicated staff team diligently built up this profile. Ormeau Baths Gallery was more than just bricks and mortar; it was the embodiment of the vision and dedication of its staff team, led by former director Hugh Mulholland. The demise of the Ormeau Baths Gallery under his directorship will leave a huge vacuum in the visual arts sector.
Despite the obvious ramifications of the closure of Ormeau Baths Gallery within the broader arts sector, we are concerned here with outlining the massive educational implications on art students, who are the next generation of art practitioners. As many of us are lecturers teaching Fine Art students, we are particularly concerned about the negative educational impact that the Ormeau Baths Gallery will have on students and their future prospects as practitioners based in the North of Ireland.
The Ormeau Baths Gallery was the only resource of its calibre on the student'’s doorstep. It gave students an opportunity to see first hand important art works by internationally renowned artists. The range of artwork shown in the Ormeau Baths Gallery covered a variety of disciplines and gave students the necessary overview of the key developments and debates in contemporary art practice at the highest level. As such it was a vital educational tool at all undergraduate and post graduate levels.
The invaluable opportunity that the Ormeau Baths Gallery presented to students to see such work, without any cost to themselves, was of key importance to their education. It enabled students to engage directly with the work of leaders in the field of fine and applied art. It demonstrated to students that their practice could be located in the North of Ireland without being parochial. The Ormeau Baths Gallery served to locate Irish art practice within a broader international context. This unique major resource has been lost to students.
The Ormeau Baths Gallery was open and accessible to students at all times. An example of the gallery'’s generous flexibility in its facilitation of art students education was the way in which Ormeau Baths Gallery staff would regularly open the gallery on Mondays (when it is normally closed to the public) to accommodate groups of students.
The former Director, Hugh Mulholland had an open door policy toward students. He would often set aside time to meet with students to enable them to conduct research. For example, students would frequently record interviews with Hugh Mulholland as a component of their professional practice.
The Gallery also hosted student placements and implemented a scheme for student volunteers, which afforded students invaluable experience in the professional arts sector. Ormeau Baths Gallery was one of the few organisations of its calibre that would facilitate students in various supportive ways.
The implications of the closure of Ormeau Baths Gallery extend beyond the students’ time in college. There is a healthy tradition of recent arts graduates staying and working in Belfast. Many have gone on to play important active roles in the local visual arts arena. Hugh Mulholland, as a graduate of the University of Ulster, dedicated himself to highlighting the work of local arts practitioners in an international context, both during his time at the Context Gallery, Derry and at Ormeau Baths Gallery. He is highly regarded internationally as an innovative gallery director and exhibition curator of outstanding vision.
The presence of such a high profile venue as the Ormeau Baths Gallery, which showcases the work of Irish artists on the same platform as international artists, was crucial in attracting a younger generation to stay and input into the visual arts sector here. This is not only relevant for the artists who show at the gallery, but it sends out an important message to students who may themselves eventually work in the professional sector. As it stood, the presence of Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast indicated that it is possible to make work locally whilst being part of an international cultural context.
The closure of the Ormeau Baths Gallery sends out the message that Belfast is provincial and retrogressive in its arts provision. This directly impacts on the ability of educators to deliver a curriculum based on professional excellence in the field of fine and applied arts. It has dire implications in terms attracting and retaining students to Belfast.
Dr. Mia Lerm Hayes
Aisling O’ Beirn
Dr. Alison Rowley