The Arts Council has decided to close the Ormeau Baths Art Gallery. One concerned artist writes with an appeal to protest it tomorrow at 1pm outside the Gallery itself in Ormeau Avenue. Tomorrow is also the scheduled closure date!!
Local art enthusiasts will know that the Ormeau Baths is the only Gallery in Northern Ireland that can be said an equal- in facilities, quality and sophistication- to those on the mainland or in Dublin. It has long and close links with the Fine Arts course at the University of Ulster, and at the moment is hosting an exhibition celebrating the work of 25 years of Master of Fine Art graduates. No other gallery in the Province or, indeed, the country has the will or the facilities to provide this platform for us, and for other new and emerging artists living here.
At the moment, launching oneself as an artist from Northern Ireland is imperceptibly hard- without the Ormeau Baths, its facilities, its support and most importantly its annual Perspective show, we are- to put it bluntly- screwed. The only other galleries willing to give exhibition space to students are obscure, non-central and despite their best efforts, badly funded and semi-derelict.
The protest is happening outside the Gallery at 1 pm on Wednesday.
A STATEMENT FROM THE STAFF OF ORMEAU BATHS GALLERY:
The Arts Council at a hastily convened meeting on 13th February informed the Chair of Ormeau Baths Gallery that the Council would be withdrawing funding from the Gallery with immediate effect.
Ormeau Baths Gallery is the most significant venue for visual arts in Northern Ireland and is one of the largest specialising in contemporary visual arts in Ireland. In the 10 years since it was established OBG has raised the profile of Northern Irish visual art practice both at home and abroad, and has presented the work of major international artists to audiences in Northern Ireland. Its closure will have a significant effect on the arts community in Northern Ireland as well as the image of Northern Ireland internationally.
This extreme step is the culmination of a series of actions taken by the Arts Council which date back to the Board of Ormeau Baths Gallery’s decision in December 2003 to withdraw from the Arts Council’s proposed City Centre Arts Centre to be sited at Talbot Street. OBG’s decision was made after careful consideration and taken in the best interests of the visual arts sector.
It is indicative of the way that the Arts Council conducts business that our decision prompted a senior member of the Arts Council executive, to instruct staff to “make life difficult” for Ormeau Baths Gallery. Ormeau Baths Gallery unwittingly presented the Arts Council with an opportunity when a number of administrative and procedural errors were identified in our draw down of Lottery funding, a situation which is not uncommon among comparable arts organisations but one which led the Arts Council to take prolonged and disproportionate action against Ormeau Baths Gallery.
During the last two years Ormeau Baths Gallery have put in place stringent financial control mechanisms and have been reporting monthly to the Arts Council who have been releasing grant income on a monthly basis.
Ormeau Baths Gallery has co-operated with the Arts Council throughout this process, in order to build confidence and re-establish a constructive working relation between the two organisations. The executive of the Arts Council have however continued to undermine the Board and management of Ormeau Baths Gallery and have sought to create an impression to its own Council that Ormeau Baths Gallery was a cause for ongoing concern.
The Arts Council in a letter from the Chief Executive dated 9th September 2005 sought further reassurances and requested that a “complete restructuring of the Board and staff restructuring” be carried out. The Board of Ormeau Baths Gallery accepted this proposal and was in the process of implementing this request when the decision was made to withdraw funding.
The Arts Council have cited non-compliance to this request as the reason for withdrawing funding, and make reference to a letter from the Director of Ormeau Baths Gallery detailing a timetable for implementation. Ormeau Baths Gallery, having changed its Memorandum and Articles of Association, was about to place a series of public advertisements to call for new Board members, a process which would be conducted by an external recruitment agency. The letter indicated that when in place this new Board would appraise management and staffing structures and institute necessary changes by November/December 2006.
It appears that the Arts Council could not accept the logical chronology of this approach. The Arts Council did not impress upon the Board of OBG that this would result in the withdrawing of all funding but instead were unavailable for discussion, despite repeated efforts to contact them to progress the recruitment process.
The Arts Council’s emphasis on staff restructuring would now appear to have less to do with a wish to enhance staffing provision at the Gallery as was articulated to OBG, but rather a continuation of a two year long process to discredit and remove both the Board of Ormeau Baths Gallery, Hugh Mulholland its Director, and his staff.
The manner of the enforced closure of Ormeau Baths Gallery and the effect this will have on the arts infrastructure of Northern Ireland raise serious issues of confidence in the Arts Council and its executive. To register your support for Ormeau Baths Gallery or question how this decision sits with ACNI’s Visual Arts Funding Policy which states that the Council:
“wishes to see Northern Ireland develop as a centre of excellence for the production, presentation and critical analysis of contemporary visual arts. It encourages quality, innovation and experimentation to develop a culture in which visual art is respected and valued”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty