Belfast Telegraph

Arts Council has a problem getting working classes on board, chief admits

by noel mcadam

The head of the Arts Council has admitted there is a "fundamental difficulty" in recruiting working-class people to serve on its board.

Bob Collins told a Stormont committee yesterday that the majority of public authorities in Northern Ireland were virtually designed to be white, male and middle-class, and there was a "serious issue" with their composition.

He was giving evidence to an inquiry set up by the culture, arts and leisure committee into claims that working-class communities, and in particular unionists, are being excluded from the arts.

The Arts Council chairman told MLAs: "You would need to be a well-established ostrich not to recognise that there is a serious issue with the composition of the boards of most public authorities in Northern Ireland.

"That is not because of any weakness of the individuals on the board, but because the appointment process is almost calculated to draw from a very narrow field: white, male, middle-class and with experience of public service."

His comments came after DUP MLA William Humphrey questioned the ability of the Arts Council to reflect all of Northern Ireland society.

"Many people in the working-class community, whether urban or rural, will be put off when they go through the public recruitment process," the North Belfast MLA claimed.

Mr Collins replied: "I could not agree more"

Mr Humphrey added: "I am not being critical of anyone when I say this, but, having looked at the board, I suggest that perhaps the working-class community is not sufficiently reflected or represented on the board.

"We end up with boards that are not reflective or representative of wider society in Northern Ireland. Indeed, in many cases, we get people who are very skilled at filling in the forms and serve on a number of boards; when they finish their term on one, they are then moved on to another."

Mr Collins admitted the problem was a "fundamental difficulty" but said the Arts Council was handcuffed by the fact that it doesn't appoint its own board members.

They were instead appointed by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, headed by Caral Ni Chuilin. Late last year the department consulted with chairpersons of the various arm's-length boards which it oversees in an attempt to "improve diversity".

Ms Ni Chuilin also asked Commissioner for Public Appointments John Keanie for advice in creating a process "whereby people from all walks of life would consider making application," DCAL added in a statement yesterday.

In his evidence to the committee, the Arts Council chairman argued: "In the same way as we talk about people being blinded by science, it is not an accident that the term, if you will excuse it, 'arty-farty' has gone into the popular lexicon.

"It was because it was distanced from people, yet people have no difficulty in enjoying really good output; they recognise it when they hear it or see it."

Questioned by a number of MLAs, Mr Collins added: "We want to avoid a number of things. One is any sense that there is a phenomenon called 'working-class arts' and a phenomenon called 'middle- or upper-class arts'.

"Another is that there is a form of artistic engagement that will do for working-class communities, and that a more expensive form is necessary for everybody else."

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