The Arts Council of Northern Ireland would like to make the following response to the questions raised by a member of staff at the Ormeau Baths Gallery (OBG). In so doing, the Council hopes to put to rest the misconceptions currently circulating among a number of visual artists and to correct misinformation supplied by former staff of OBG.
The following questions were emailed as part of a small campaign on behalf of OBG staff, and the Council’s reply follows in blue:
1. The Arts Council say they “agreed to help OBG to wind down its affairs in an orderly, business-like manner”. Is it orderly and business-like to give two days’ notice to the four permanent members of staff, and not even leave time to take down the current exhibition?
The former Board of the management company of OBG made the decision to go into liquidation with immediate effect. The Arts Council had offered an alternative to the company, which would have provided them with a longer time to wind down their affairs in an orderly fashion and honour some of their commitments to staff and current exhibitors. Questions over the notice period should therefore be directed to the former Chair of OBG to answer.
2. The Arts Council say there were financial irregularities at the Ormeau Baths Gallery. Why then did a forensic audit, called by the Arts Council, clear it of any wrongdoing?
The Arts Council undertook an independent review of lottery grants to the OBG management company and a report was produced. The findings clearly identified key and serious irregularities in the actions of the management company. As a result, the company had to repay £25,000 to the Arts Council. The Council took action to report the situation to the Comptroller General National Audit Office, in keeping with Arts Council policy on Business Ethics.
3. The Arts Council say they are “actively exploring options with potential partners in the visual arts sector and are confident that the gallery space will re-open”. Given the alienation of the arts sector as a result of this sudden closure how can this confidence be justified?
The Arts Council has received no evidence to back up the statement that the arts sector is alienated. Recent events surrounding OBG have affected some individuals within the visual arts sector, and we understand those concerns and passions. We have received a number of emails on the issue, some are complaints and others are emails of support for the Council’s action not to award further funding to the management company. However, the Council wishes to emphasise that the gallery space within the Ormeau Baths building is NOT closing permanently and we are making efforts to get the gallery open in the immediate future.
4. Given the Arts Council’s advocacy of an “arm’s length” policy towards their clients, why have they continuously interfered in the day-to day running of the gallery over a two-year period?
5. The Arts Council has declared a number of reasons for the closure of the gallery including unsustainability and loss of confidence in the management. What evidence is there for any of these claims?
Questions 4 & 5:
The Arts Council at no point attempted to obstruct the artistic programme developed by the OBG management company. The Council was concerned only with operational issues, not artistic issues. The Council did continue to monitor the company monthly on the basis of their financial deficit position and management performance. The absence of a strategic plan, a business plan or a financial recovery plan over the last 3 years contributed to an eventual lack of confidence by the Council in the management company of OBG. The Arts Council continued to invest in the company in efforts to encourage them to improve their financial situation and their corporate governance – this did not happen and the Council was forced to make the decision not to award further funding.
6. The Arts Council says they are “saddened by the decision of the Chair of the Ormeau Baths Gallery to announce the closure of the Gallery”. How can they claim to be “saddened” when their own withdrawal of funding forced the Gallery’s closure?
The Arts Council remains sincere in its view that it is saddened by the failure of the OBG management company to address their outstanding management and financial problems. The Council would like to reassure the visual arts community that funding for the sector remains protected in the year ahead and we look forward to seeing the OBG space opened again in the immediate future.