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Fresh criticism of Northern Ireland arts chief for his ‘grant dependency’ remarks


Mairtin O'Muilleoir

Mairtin O'Muilleoir

Mairtin O'Muilleoir

A Sinn Fein MLA has said he is "disturbed" by comments made by the chair of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland suggesting the creative sector here depends too heavily on handouts.

John Edmund, a consultant marketing professional, faced calls to quit his post as Arts Council chief last week following a speech at the Arts and Business awards.

An extract from his address read: "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."

Mr Edmund also said the arts sector should learn from the business world.

His comments were made in the same week that an 8% cut in arts funding was forecast for Northern Ireland.

They also stood in stark contrast to the Arts Council executive's response to budget cuts, which said they "threaten the very fabric of our cultural infrastructure".

Yesterday, Sinn Fein MLA and former Stormont finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir hit out at Mr Edmund's message.

"I am disturbed at Mr Edmund's recent statements branding arts groups as having a dependency culture," he said. "Nothing, in my experience, could be further from the truth. Arts organisations are dynamic, innovative, and net contributors to the economy despite often operating on a shoestring."

Mr O Muilleoir also questioned why the former DUP minister Paul Givan appointed a chair "who seems totally at odds with the arts groups he is supposed to champion".

He added that it was "unfortunate" Mr Edmund had become "a cheerleader for cuts he should be opposing".

"I am also concerned about the impact of Mr Edmund's comments on morale within the Arts Council board and staff," the South Belfast MLA said.

The Arts Council and Mr Edmund were contacted again for a response yesterday, but have declined to comment at this stage.

On Friday, a spokesperson for the Arts Council said Mr Edmund was taking time to discuss the matter with other board members before commenting.

Conor Shields is convenor of Arts Matters NI group as well as chief executive of the Community Arts Partnership.

While frustrated at Mr Edmund's comments, he said he would hear his response before making any call for him to step down.

"At a time when we need the strongest possible advocacy to maintain arts funding, any divergent voice is unwelcome," he said, "but particularly so when it's the chair of our principal funder and lead advocate.

"His message seems to be out of step with the executive of the Arts Council who challenged these cuts in their budgetary response."

Mr Shields said it was often the promise of public funding that enabled groups to convince businesses and other funders to invest.

"Without public funding leverage they won't be able to do that," he continued.

"For a sector that has lost 40% of its funding in real terms over five years, it shows the dedication and skills of chief executives and directors to maintain the provisions they have."

Asked if Mr Edmund should resign, Mr Shields said the arts sector needed a champion to oppose the cuts.

"The role of a chair in any organisation is to represent the views of their board so we need clarity around the views that were represented," he added.

Belfast Telegraph