Monday, 29 January 2018

Arts, Business and Cyber-Lynching

By Willie Drennan

Cyber-Lynching is the new term for a crowd of folk getting together on social media to have a collective go at somebody they feel deserves punishment. No doubt an online lynch mob will be after me very soon for even making reference .

For now it's the Chair of the Arts Council, with his speech at the Arts and Business NI annual awards in Belfast on January 24th, who is getting cyber-lynched.

Speeches at such events are not meant to be overly exciting or controversial but this one seems set to be memorable: it has caused the arts establishment to howl, in apparent unison, for his dismissal.

The curious thing about Mr Edmund’s presentation was that, to the uninitiated in the arts establishment, it surely all sounded very rational? He praised the collaboration of arts and business sectors and encouraged further mutually beneficial collaboration. 

In this day and age however we all need to be very careful with language, and how we string sentences together, if we seek not to offend. 

Aspects of John Edmund's speech were interpreted by members of the arts fraternity as not supporting greater public funding for the arts sector. In particular his usage of the word, "dependency" seemed to be one of the keywords that ignited their collective flame of ire.

Now, I wasn't at the event. To be honest, I am so far removed from the arts establishment that I was unaware that such events happen and that the Arts Council had engaged Mr Edmund as their Chair in January 2017. I found out about the controversial speech on social media, of course. I was intrigued by the scale of hostility towards the Chair and the fact that there didn't seem to be any alternative voices speaking in his defense. Their comradeship and solidarity is impressive.

As an outsider I would have thought it preferable to simply challenge the points raised and initiate rational internal debate for the greater good. But I suspect there is something else going on and no doubt I will be better informed very soon .

Perhaps John Edmund is considered someone who might somehow upset the arts establishment apple cart? Is the Arts Council Chair a potential spanner in the works for the preservation of the status quo? I'm not making a statement, I'm only asking questions.

Being a full-time freelance practitioner of the Arts who is not part of the arts establishment certainly has it's disadvantages. On the bright side, not being part of that fraternity enables me to write about it: asking questions, without having anything to lose. I suspect not too many have that luxury.

I do, however, have a particular interest in this subject matter.

In June 2011 I wrote an open letter addressed it to all concerned at Stormont. This led to an invite from DCAL to attend an event at the Strule Arts Centre in March 2012, to discuss the ‘creative industries’. My basic point was that funding for the arts was excessively bureaucratic and could be best addressed by encouraging more delivery of the arts in conjunction with the private sector. I did get nods of acceptance from other participants for my viewpoint and no one seemed to be in contention.

My detailed opinion was registered at Stormont and of course that was the end of that.  I then concluded that the arts establishment was too comfortable with the status quo and it seemed futile to even bother trying to influence change.

I have no reason to believe that anyone in authority would now give serious consideration to my viewpoint. This developing new debate does however give me opportunity to address my contention that the 'creative industries' in Northern Ireland are influenced, directed and controlled from the top down via a dense cloud of bureaucracy: that the cost of arts related bureaucracy to the public purse often exceeds the cost for arts practitioners to deliver arts activity.

The Arts and Business NI concept does seem like the right direction and congratulations to those arts organisations, such as Young At Art, Maiden Voyage Dance and Eastside Arts, who were acknowledged at the recent awards ceremony. But it does appear to only engage large corporate bodies from the world of big business.  There is surely a need to expand and develop this concept at the grassroots level?

The furore around Mr Edmund's words are related to a campaign opposing recent cuts in arts funding and the possibility of even further cuts. I fully understand the genuine concern over this . Public funding for the arts is essential and it's contribution to all parts of society should be fully understood, respected and supported. If I could be convinced that the arts in Northern Ireland was unfairly disadvantaged compared with the arts in the rest of the UK, and compared with other sectors, I would enthusiastically support this present campaign for greater funding.

In this era though, when all sectors are experiencing cuts in government support, perhaps the ‘creative industries’ should be at the cutting edge of finding creative solutions for the wider challenges facing our society?  Excessive bureaucracy is a major problem in all public sectors and is of particular concern for health and education.

 Perhaps Mr Edmund was just guilty of not paying proper attention to language, perhaps the problem is much more complex, perhaps he has notions of radical reform that to some might feel threatening?  The level of hostility towards him is still very curious and no doubt those of us on the outside will come to understand it soon.


Below I attach:

 (1) the text of The Chair's speech that was posted on social media 

 (2) a copy of the letter I sent to Stormont in 2011]



1/ Mr Edmund’s speech ( as provided by ACNI):

‘Thank you Wendy and thank you to Arts & Business Chair, Martin Bradley, and Chief Executive, Mary Nagele, for the invitation to speak this evening, and for the opportunity to acknowledge, on behalf of the Arts Council, another year of achievement by the growing number of local businesses and arts organisations now working in partnership.
Everyone involved in the arts in Northern Ireland must also thank Allianz for their continuing support for these awards, and in particular we should thank Sean McGrath, who has spoken so effectively about the value of a healthy arts and cultural sector to the business community. That’s something we would all endorse.
It is important to have an awards ceremony, such as this, to help raise the public profile of the wide range of benefits that the arts and business can enjoy through closer collaboration.
The Arts Council, as the principal funder of Arts & Business NI, greatly values and appreciates the generosity of the support that our business community gives to the arts.
Your support has never been more important to us.
We are all facing deeply uncertain times. But both sectors, arts and business, if they recognise the opportunities they share can support one another to face into the challenges that lie ahead.
For the arts, the political and economic landscape here is such that we are having to do more with less.
The rest of the UK is enjoying a period of reinvestment in the arts, as government acknowledges the transformational contribution the arts can make to delivering priorities.
In Northern Ireland, a weak and unbalanced economy with poor levels of productivity, too many who have ruled themselves out of the workforce and a high level of dependency has meant that day to day priorities have not made ‘space’ for the support needed to enable the arts sector to deliver the contribution to society and the economy of which it is capable. Unfortunately that looks set to continue given the budgetary pressures that exist.
The current funding model for the arts has created a high level of dependency and, frankly, has not been a sustainable one for some time. The need for a new multi-party model that recognises and focuses on delivering mutual benefit has been accepted in some quarters but is, as yet, not fully formed. Make no mistake, if the arts are to be returned to health we need to shape that model and put it to work just as soon as ever we can.
This awards event tonight emphasises the important relationship between the arts and business sectors. I spoke earlier of a future dependent on delivering mutual benefit, outside of the relationship between the arts and its audience there is perhaps no better example of the potential for shared benefit. For some businesses, arts activities actually deliver customers, for others not in that happy position, the worth of the arts to business is more about market positioning, brand building and making available promotional opportunities; no less valuable, just needing a bit more long-term thought when it comes to return on investment. Engaging with artists can also contribute to how a business thinks creatively, how it innovates and also how leadership develops, but why am I saying that you know it already.
Business can learn from the arts but the arts sector has much to learn from business, we need to develop your focus on outcomes, your skills (particularly with regard to planning and performance measurement) and your commercial know-how. Thinking like a business, integrating skills and expertise will help build greater resilience into the creative sector, through perhaps not by as much as you do through your financial support (at this point in the development and change cycle at least).
Our two sectors have much to gain from combining our distinctive strengths. The partnerships that are being showcased tonight are all excellent, all exemplary. One can’t help but be impressed that every year the standard just gets better setting the bar ever higher. I have no doubt that the success stories we will hear about tonight will be an inspiration and a motivation to others to develop creative collaborations of their own.
Congratulations to all the shortlisted candidates, and good luck!’

 2/ Open Letter to DCAL and Committees at Stormont.

As originally published in The Ulster Folk: Issue 4, June 2011

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