THE WORD Arts Council’s NI Troubles

A row over ACNI chair John Edmund’s remarks on funding is getting worse, writes Patrick Kelly

Arts folk in Northern Ireland are used to arguments over funding but the current row involving the chairman of the Arts Council in Northern Ireland is unprecedented, or as they say here, "a horse of a different colour".

It's already featured a public spat between the chair, marketing professional John Edmund, and the rest of his board and now there are calls from across the sector for his resignation. Now a couple of local MPs have joined in the demands for his head.

The row began over a speech which Edmund made at the annual glitzy celebration of arts achievement in the country, the Arts and Business NI awards. Edmund used the occasion to suggest to his assembled audience that the arts relied too much on state aid and instead it should take a leaf out of the business bible and develop your focus on outcomes, your skills - particularly with regard to planning and performance measurement - and your commercial know-how".

Whether this intervention was prompted by the fact that the venue for the speech, Belfast’s MAC Arts centre, has just been given a multi-million pound lifeline to meet a financial shortfall, or simply a call to plunder the commercial acumen of arts’ existing business partners, we don’t know.

What we do know is that the speech went down badly. Against a background of proposals for an 8% per cent cut in funding for the arts in Northern Ireland, it seemed to many onlookers that the chair of the Arts Council was backing the beancounters against the artists.

Arts Matter NI, a campaign supported by almost 50 groups across the sector, immediately called on the Arts Council to clarify its position on the cuts and demanded assurances that "the strongest advocacy messages are being made to maintain investment and indeed to urge greater support for our historically underfunded sector".

Edmund’s attempts to explain himself made matters worse. In an article in the Belfast Telegraph, he wrote that, “The government just doesn't have the money to meet all the demands placed upon it and the priorities it has set are those that society cares deepest about - health, education, jobs, infrastructure, identity". He added, “We all want to see more government funding for the arts but we have to be realistic and leverage the funding that is made available to secure support from new funding sources."

John Edmund has a long track record in the creative industries, working with local councils on developing arts plans, helping to set the successful film development organisation, Northern Ireland Screen and chairing the venerable Grand Opera House in Belfast. But he is also no stranger to controversy. He chaired the Northern Ireland Music Industry Commission, a body which backed the region’s music industry between 2001 and 2011 before it collapsed, in the best band tradition, over "irreconcilable differences".

But the charge that at a time when the arts is possibly facing life threatening cuts, Edmund’s opponents say, is that he should be championing their cause, not taking the administration’s line that there isn’t enough money. The Belfast Telegraph quoted an anonymous source claiming that the chair’s arrival had “disrupted the smooth running of the Arts Council, because it was felt that he had an agenda on funding that wasn't shared by other board members".

Those other board members made their feelings known when they issued an unprecedented statement distancing themselves from Edmund’s remarks at the MAC event. The statement said Mr Edmund's speech at the awards function did not reflect any discussion, or position, that had been agreed by the board.

"It is, therefore, our understanding that the chair was speaking as an individual" the statement added.

Now it has emerged that the board had passed a no-confidence motion in the chair following a couple of acrimonious board meetings back at the end of 2017, where board members opposed the chair’s attitude to the funding of the creative sector.

Edmund insists he is fully supportive of ACNI’s demand for more cash now, but he thinks that in the long term there will be a need to move to a more sustainable model of funding for the arts.

“If artists are to be remunerated properly for the long-term, if we are to create sustainable arts organisations, the funding model needs to change into one that is more sustainable. Government will be part of that model and, with the right arguments made, a bigger funder than it is now - but it will be as a partner, sharing the load in a balanced way with local government, business, trusts and foundations, and the audience.

Arts Matters NI has now escalated its opposition, issuing a statement calling for Edmund’s resignation, saying, "Given the arts sector's profound anxiety about proposed cuts and successive reports of the advocacy position of the current chair, after these further revelations, members of Arts Matter NI do not believe that this chair can champion our best collective interests.

The board members aren't due to meet until February 21, but ACNI are making no comments on the row at all.

Of course, like everything else in Northern Ireland at the moment, as the stand-off between Sinn Fein and the DUP continues over the Good Friday Agreement, it doesn’t help that Edmund was appointed in 2016, when the job was still in the gift of elected politicians, by then DUP Arts minister, Paul Givan. And there is a deep (and probably unfair) suspicion of that party’s attitude to the arts.  However, its worth pointing out that Edmund's views, if raised anywhere else in the UK would be unexceptional. The arts does need to look at other avenues of support. But if this funding row gets pitched into Northern Ireland’s deeper political quagmire, that could be very bad news for the arts.

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