NCH rows: stop the squabbling and focus on the fundamentals

Disputes at the top level of the NCH are overshadowing more immediate concerns at the ground level

The National Concert Hall unveiled details of its 2014-2015 concert series at the end of last month and has been garnering a lot of publicity over the past few weeks. The two are not entirely connected, however.

The publicity focused in the first instance on the resignation of five board members (Bruce Arnold, Pat Heneghan, Artemis Kent, Patricia Slavin and chairwoman Margaret Ryan), and a split on the board that led to four of those resignations (the chair's resignation is apparently unconnected to the split).

The Minister for the Arts Jimmy Deenihan also announced that the NCH is to be put on a statutory footing. He told the Dáil on May 7th that the decision is in line with a similar decision made last year about the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The proposed legislation, he said, will mean that the venue's next board "will have absolute clarity in respect of the position on all governance and operational issues at the National Concert Hall".

He explained that, “as a statutory body, and in line with good governance, the NCH will be required to prepare and adopt a statement of strategy, submit progress reports, and will also be required to prepare an annual business plan, to be submitted as appropriate to the Minister and the Oireachtas. This is in common with the changes being proposed for other national cultural institutions.”


He also said that, “as a statutory body, the National Concert Hall will have enhanced capacity to engage in fund-raising. This again is common to other national cultural institutions which are already established as statutory bodies and which have strong fund-raising programmes.”

Fund-raising, of course, was at the heart of the conflict that led to the resignations, specifically a link-up with the Lincoln Center in New York in a plan that seemed to be in line to soak up large sums of money without any guarantee of delivering sure returns. But nothing that has come into the public domain in the wake of the resignations has managed to clarify whether the expensive fund-raising plans were the real issue or whether there was a more fundamental struggle involved. Board member John McGrane told this newspaper that the differences concerned "board governance and board focus", without being explicit on what the differences actually were.

Whatever way you choose to look at it, the damage is widespread. It has affected the board, the chief executive Simon Taylor and staff morale, and it draws attention to the sometimes insurmountable challenges of large-scale fund-raising.

Fund-raising from the private sector is a hobby horse of the Minister and of the Arts Council. Damage has been done in that area, too. If one of the largest cultural institutions in the State runs away from the risks, what hope is there for smaller fry? There are those in the arts community who are sounding warning notes that Raise, the Arts Council’s award scheme to support private fund-raising, is not working, and will turn out to be a bad news story rather than a good one. The models that everyone looks at in this area are in the US. But philanthropy in the US is a very different matter to philanthropy in Ireland. Otherwise the arts would have been showered with private money during the years of the boom.

Jimmy Deenihan and his Dáil questioner, Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghail, both showered the NCH’s management and board with praise. They obviously haven’t spent much time in the hall, where some seats no longer pop back into an upright position when no one is sitting in them. Fire regulations specify that “all escape routes are kept unobstructed and immediately available for use” and an escape route is defined as “a route by which a person may reach a place of safety and means in relation to any point in a building, a route from that point”.

I’ve drawn the matter to the NCH’s attention on numerous occasions over the last 10 years or so. I’ve spoken to the fire authorities about the issue of seats in venues making exit difficult, and they confirmed it would be a matter of concern. There is a rolling programme in place to fix the seats, but damaged seats always remain, and, after seeing someone stumble over one of them and thinking about the consequences in an emergency, I made a formal complaint to the NCH at the beginning of April.

The NCH's Simon Taylor told me that "we need to find sufficient gaps in the hall's very busy schedule to enable the necessary work" and "the majority of the faulty seats (including all those in the stalls) will be removed for repair on April 16th and 17th and will re-installed in time for the Good Friday concerts on April 18th". But, weeks after that date, the work – it is the province of the Office of Public Works, which maintains the fabric of the building – still had not been done. Spats among board members would seem a minor issue in relation to the fundamental safety of the people who pay to attend events at the hall. Shame on all concerned.

Worth paying for a season ticket?

Some of the hall’s most stalwart supporters have been muttering into their coffee of late about other matters. One of them even told me that when they saw the details of the latest season they wondered whether it would be worth their while paying for a season ticket.

There was a lot of negative feedback about the March appearance by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Simply put, people didn't seem to feel that the quality of the playing warranted the ticket prices of €30-€70. The RTÉ NSO's subscription concerts are priced at €10-€35, and the message I was picking up was that the Bournemouth orchestra simply wasn't worth the extra cost. Much as I enjoyed Kirill Karabits's account of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, I wouldn't disagree. The playing of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet was pretty rough. And as much as I enjoyed Michael Collins as a clarinettist with the City of London Sinfonia in April (€20-€55), his conducting was lacklustre, and the concert as a whole came nowhere near the standards of the Irish Chamber Orchestra under Jörg Widmann nine days earlier (all tickets €20).

This doesn't strike me as a sustainable model, and there's no doubt that the steam has gone out of the international orchestra series in recent years. Simon Rattle's fabulous Haydn Creation with the Choir of Enlightenment and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was in a choral series. The reduction from 21 concerts last year to 16 this year is also a matter of concern at a time when the hall is seriously upping its game in non-classical areas. It seems like someone has taken their eye off the ball.