Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: Arts Council chair and board at war for months over attitude to cuts

By Ivan Little

The board of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland passed two votes of no confidence in their beleaguered chair John Edmund late last year and staged walkouts from meetings, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The votes were taken at turbulent meetings in October and December as board members registered their opposition to the DUP-appointed chair's attitude to how the creative sector here should be funded.

There was a walkout in October, and a similar protest during a November meeting, when the previous month's no confidence vote was restated.

Disclosure over board members' fury with Mr Edmund comes just days after they went public with criticism of him concerning a speech he made in which he said arts groups were too dependent on Government handouts to finance their activities.

The revelations have exposed even more layers of an almost poisonous breakdown in relations between the board and its chair.

Mr Edmund's comments that the arts should be run more like a business were made at an Arts and Business awards ceremony in Belfast.

His address triggered calls for his resignation from arts practitioners reeling from forecasts of 8% cuts in the already-stretched Arts Council budget - cuts which, it's predicted, could lead to some organisations having to fold.

Mr Edmund, who has resisted demands for him to quit, reiterated his controversial position on financing the arts in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph.

Writing exclusively for this newspaper, he said the Government didn't have the money to meet demands from the arts, which, he added, had to be realistic about their expectations.

But Mr Edmund's article only fuelled anger among people in the sector - many of whom said it underlined the fact that he wasn't championing their cause, but rather supporting the cuts. The Belfast Telegraph understands that relations between Mr Edmund and the board have been fraught almost from the day he was appointed chair by then Arts Minister Paul Givan in December 2016.

One source said the chairman'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.

The source said that, from the outset, it didn't appear that Mr Edmund would be a champion of the arts, adding: "He didn't seem to support the case for state investment in the arts, which has always been a fundamental cornerstone of the welfare system and the welfare state, along with health and education.

"What was needed was someone with an empathy and understanding of the fragility of the arts and how they need to be nurtured.

"But all of Mr Edmund's attitudes, behaviours and public pronouncements have been absolutely discordant with the advocacy messages of the Arts Council and their current five-year plan."

The source said people in the creative sector were disappointed that Mr Edmund didn't appear to support the Arts Council's push for more Government backing and for parity between funding for the arts here and in the rest of the UK.

Observers of the arts scene say Mr Edmund, who is a consultant marketing veteran, is under even more intense pressure to step down now that he no longer has the confidence of the overwhelming majority of his board.

That was an issue he didn't address in his article in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph.

But it is not clear what would happen if he stays in office in a job that attracts £10,000 for a minimum 40-hour year.

The absence of an Executive and an Arts Minister at Stormont has only served to muddy the waters about Mr Edmund's position.

One arts practitioner said that Mr Edmund had lost the credibility of huge swathes of the sector.

Other observers have pointed out that minutes of Arts Council board deliberations have become increasingly difficult to access online, because large sections of them have had to be redacted due to the dissent and votes of no confidence during the meetings.

One commentator said eight of the 11 board members who were signatories to Tuesday's unprecedented statement distancing themselves from Mr Edmund's funding views were "people of integrity, public sector values and knowledge of the arts".

Only Mr Edmund's vice-chair Katy Radford didn't put her name to the statement; another member is on maternity leave.

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.

The board members aren't due to meet until later this month, but it's not clear if there could be an emergency meeting before then.

Belfast Telegraph

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