The closed approach of the Minister for Arts does not inspire confidence

In her first few months in the job, it’s hard to know what Heather Humphreys thinks about the boards of cultural institutions and the arts

‘What does Heather Humphreys really think about the boards of cultural institutions and the arts in general? I have no idea.’ Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

‘What does Heather Humphreys really think about the boards of cultural institutions and the arts in general? I have no idea.’ Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

 

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, they say. Leopold Stokowski, one of the great individualists among conductors, put it another way: never mind what the reviews say, just check the length. The longer the better.

The Minister for Arts, Heather Humphreys, is probably not sympathetic to the Stokowski way of thinking right now. In her first few months in the job she has spent more time in the headlines than any of her predecessors. But the news has not been good.

I’ve read her press releases. I’ve seen footage of her reading her defence in the Seanad. I’m nonplussed. What does she really think about the boards of cultural institutions and the arts in general? I have no idea.

The prime minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb, recently appeared on a BBC World Service broadcast of the series Hardtalk, a programme that prides itself on its tough questioning style. For a number of years, Finnish politicians have been able to take a high-minded attitude to the travails of crisis-stricken EU countries such as Ireland. But Finland’s great brand, Nokia, has taken quite a knock, the country itself is suffering more than most from the sanctions the EU has imposed on Russia, and it has just lost its AAA credit rating. Stubb is in his job just a month longer than Humphreys. But he sounded like he knows what he’s talking about. The positions he outlined and the answers he gave were multilayered. He gave the impression of having complex responses to the complex world he lives in.

 

Healthy strategy?

Humphreys seems to depend on having a position, a worked-out answer, a reductionist solution that is intended to limit the release of information, to drive away inquiry and to close off comment. This does not look like a healthy strategy for someone who’s responsible for a national constituency of hugely varied creative types and their even more hugely varied followers, and whose department also oversees the often contentious work of the Arts Council.

Two major cultural institutions have been under scrutiny in the political process over recent weeks. Northern Ireland’s Minister for Culture, Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín, faced questions about the Ulster Orchestra at Stormont’s Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure from MLA Basil McCrea.

McCrea asked the Minister about reports that the orchestra will cease to exist if its dire financial situation is not resolved by November 15th. The Minister confirmed that she had come across such reports in the media, and that she understood the people from the orchestra were “doing meetings with Ministers about rescue packages”. She hadn’t actually met the orchestra, though, and said that she was “not going to answer questions based on speculation”.

It’s a similar approach to that of Humphreys. Close off the questions. Don’t answer. Hope that it will go away.

 

NCH discussion

In Dublin, the National Concert Hall has been the subject of recent discussion at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht. The Government plans to put the NCH on a statutory footing, and advance talks on the necessary legislation have seen the department secretary, Niall Ó Donnchú; NCH chairman, Gerry Kearney; NCH chief executive, Simon Taylor, and executive director of RTÉ’s orchestras and performing groups, John O’Kane, address the committee.

The big picture is that the situation of the NCH, which was established in 1981, needs to be regularised in the context of the other national cultural institutions. RTÉ’s performing groups are the biggest users of the hall, hence the presence of John O’Kane.

The worrying notes in the discussion were struck by Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, who is also the director of the Abbey Theatre. He noted that the legislation would allow the Minister for Arts to give general policy direction in writing to the hall board in the performance of its functions, with the exception of functions relating to artistic and curatorial matters.

“It is an extraordinary power to give to any minister,” he said, adding that “in the running of a national cultural institution, there is very little to differentiate between putting on a play or a concert and the business of putting on that play or concert. A particular head [in the legislation] would be required to define when an issue is not artistic and when it is not business.

“It is fairly predominant throughout the proposed scheme that the minister has a huge amount of power in terms of managing and interfering, with no arm’s-length principle, and that he or she can find many different ways to influence the board, from appointments to the board, the necessary qualifications for which are very vague, and, while some are listed, there is no mention of artists or composers being on the board, to the issue of gender balance, which is dealt with by requiring it to the greatest extent practical, whereas the Bill should be very clear about gender balance, and to issues around the submission of the statement of strategy.

“My cynical reading of this is to see it as a way for the minister to have day-to-day involvement in the running of the National Concert Hall.”

Assurances were given, but there’s a lot to play for, and the record of the Department of Arts in managing cultural istintutions would not fill you with hope. You can find the full discussion on url.ie/vsut

 

mdervan@irishtimes.com

 

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