Robert Ballagh criticised for highlighting Abbey directors’ nationality

Artist’s remark in letter to ‘Irish Times’ dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ to current controversy

The Minister for Culture, Josepha Madigan, has said she "very much regrets" the nationality of the directors of the Abbey Theatre being highlighted in a letter by artist and designer Robert Ballagh.

A spokeswoman for the Minister said Mr Ballagh’s assertion that “practically every national cultural institution is being managed by an outsider” is “incorrect”.

In a letter published in The Irish Times on Thursday, Mr Ballagh said he wasn't surprised that 300 practitioners wrote to the Minister expressing their "deep concern and dissatisfaction with the direction that the Abbey Theatre has taken in recent times".

“However, I was surprised that the letter did not raise an obvious question: why is the Irish National Theatre, which has an obligation to reflect Irish cultural values, currently being run by two Scotsmen?” he said.

“I suppose if this disconnect was simply a problem for the Abbey Theatre, the situation would not be so serious, but at this moment in time practically every national cultural institution is being managed by an outsider.”

The Abbey Theatre's directors are Graham McLaren, who is from Scotland, and Neil Murray, who is from Wales.

A spokeswoman for Ms Madigan said on Thursday: “While the Minister has acknowledged the concerns of practitioners who have written to her in respect of the Abbey Theatre, she very much regrets that the nationality of the directors has been highlighted in this way.”

Tone of letter

Angela Dorgan, chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, said the tone of the letter is not something it would "agree with, endorse or support".

“I don’t think in any of the conversations we’ve been approached with or participated in . . . not once was the staffing or who was running or not the Abbey an area brought up as a concern,” she said.

“I think cultural institutions should hire the person best suited to the job that they’re being hired to do. I think in all the areas that he cited, the best person is in place to do the job, I don’t think that’s what anybody was disputing.”

Fintan Warfield, Sinn Féin’s Seanad spokesperson for culture, said Mr Ballagh’s assertion is “completely irrelevant”.

“We have really good chairpersons and directors of our cultural institutions. It is not about their place of origin, it’s about the decisions that they make.

“Having people come from different backgrounds leads to in any case good things,” he said.

“The current directors of the Abbey have transformed both public engagement and voluminous developments.

“Obviously, the direction that it’s currently taken in terms of wages, whether that’s accidental or otherwise, that’s unacceptable.”

The Arts Council of Ireland said it had no comment to make on the matter.

‘Deep concern’

More than 300 actors, directors, designers, agents and playwrights wrote to the Minister for Culture earlier this week to express “deep concern and dissatisfaction” with the direction that the Abbey – the national theatre – has taken since the appointment of new directors two years ago.

Mr Murray and Mr McLaren took over as co-directors in January 2017 and their strategy has changed to include many more co-productions with independent theatre companies and fewer in-house productions. This has led to fewer actors being directly employed by the Abbey, and often on lower rates because they are contracted by the co-producing companies, the letter states.

The Abbey said on Monday night it had huge respect for the artists who signed the letter, took their concerns very seriously and would meet the representatives to discuss the issues they had raised.