The Arts needs leaders as much as money. Now we have neither.

By Adam Turkington, Seedhead Arts and #ArtsMatterNI

Last week Bombardier won their case to overturn the huge 292% tariffs on imports of its C-Series planes with the decision being seen as securing 1,000 jobs in Belfast.

Politicians, businessmen, union leaders community representative alike had lined up to fight the corner for the factory in it’s time of need and all rejoiced as this threat was lifted.

Imagine if in the midst of this crisis the chair of the board made a speech to workers, potential investors and other stakeholders and declared that the 292% tariff was an unavoidable economic reality.

Imagine if instead of fighting for the company the chair took to the stage in public and, without the backing of his board, said that really historically the company has been doing things wrong and all that can be done now is to tighten their belts and pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

This is effectively what John Edmund, the Chair of the Arts Council did in a speech last Wednesday and in a subsequent opinion piece in the Belfast Telegraph.

So in this blog I’m not going to talk about the cuts, because that has been covered at length. I’m going to assume that despite how the Nolan Show frames the debate, we can all agree that we shouldn’t have to choose between Healthcare and the Arts. That as a civilised society we understand that investment in the arts is something we do.

Instead, while the cuts provide the context for this post, what I want to address here directly is the suitability of John Edmund for the role of Chair at this time.

To be clear this is not personal. I will in no way argue that Mr Edmund is incompetent or unfit for a public position, I would however like to suggest that at this time, for this specific role, someone so out of step with the industry he is appointed to represent should really consider their position.

Edmund’s remarks are way out of line with reality in the sector. Worse, they undermine the very work he claims to support by trotting out politically coloured and personally held beliefs on public platforms where his legally constituted role is to speak for the board and the wider sector.

Being present at the speech – at an event to celebrate the achievements of the sector – it felt as if we were being scolded for being wasteful, in a “you could all learn a lot from the likes of me and how brilliant I am with money” sorta way.

If you know the Arts at all, you’ll know this is well wide of the mark.

Consider how far behind everyone else we are with funding and how consistently we punch way above our weight. It’s a bloody miracle what we do with the money that we get. Not least because there is a massive creative economy already.

Thousands like myself make a living in the arts and generate commercial work for artists without public subvention. Those that do rely on ACNI grants only do so for an average of 25% of their income.

Of course, there are issues with the ACNI and the way they have led the sector, which predate Edmunds’ appointment.  There are also issues with certain key organisations.

But the sector as a whole is already on its knees.

A sector employing thousands is on the edge of collapse. Whilst mental health is talked about more widely, in the Arts we have many people working right at the edge, and it is at crisis levels. We need leadership and we need it urgently.

Mr Edmunds may argue he is showing leadership, in making tough choices. But the essential requirement of leadership is that people want to follow you. Telling an industry which has delivered huge economic value, despite being disproportionately hammered for years, that they’re a bit needy and have a dependancy culture, is not a great place to start.

And when an unelected civil servant tells the chair of the ACNI to expect an further 8% cut to a budget that’s already been cut by 30% in the last five years I expect him to say ‘We will fight you on the beaches’ not ‘Yeah you’re right we are a bit wasteful aren’t we‘.

At this point it would traditional to post a link to the speech but there’s a problem. I have two different transcripts. When I asked for the text the morning following the speech, I was sent a transcript which I then posted on my Facebook page. It didn’t do down well.

In particular one phrase ‘too many who have ruled themselves out of the workforce’ as justification for cuts to the arts picked up lots of comments. It was a phrase that those of us who were at the awards all heard and remembered because it is so galling.

The next day I get a revised transcript from ACNI. Mysteriously the phrase in question is missing. The file data shows this document was created on the Friday morning, two days after the awards.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

So to conclude, the role of chair of the ACNI is not one that can be reduced to governance. You are the spokesperson for a sector, not just those in receipt of funding, but businesses who operate in the sector, users, other funders and other beneficiaries. You are our champion, our voice, a trusted friend.

Edmund however appears to enjoy actively baiting the sector, behaving like a football hooligan trapped in the away end challenging everyone to a fight. Rather than listen to the cacophony of voices asking him to reconsider his words, he reiterated them in a newspaper for thousands more to read, while quietly rewriting the phrase that exposed the ideology at the core of his position.

Essentially he’s entitled to his views.  He’s even entitled to have those views and remain the chair of ACNI. However the place for those views, which are at odds with the board and the sector he’s supposed to be speaking on behalf of, is not in the Belfast Telegraph and not an awards ceremony speaking in an official capacity.

And if he holds those views to such a degree that he can’t speak on behalf of the sector without sticking the boot in, he really needs take his position and consider the hell out of it.

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