Tuesday 15 October 2019

'No Irish need apply - there's too many outsiders in top arts jobs' - Robert Ballagh

Artist Ballagh says he's not racist in defence of home-grown talent

Artist Robert Ballagh lamented how many non-Irish people were directing our top arts institutions. Photo: Julien Behal/PA
Artist Robert Ballagh lamented how many non-Irish people were directing our top arts institutions. Photo: Julien Behal/PA
Laura Lynott

Laura Lynott

Artist Robert Ballagh has stood by his claims that "outsiders" are heading up Irish cultural institutions while Irish "need not apply" - but insists he is not 'xenophobic'.

Dublin artist and political activist Ballagh wrote a letter criticising the fact that Scottish, English and Welsh people are holding the highest ranking positions in cultural institutions here.

The comments came in the wake of an open letter from actors claiming the Abbey Theatre has had an apparent run of up to five months without any Irish actors being directly employed.

Ballagh wrote: "I was not at all surprised to read the open letter signed by more than 300 Irish practitioners... 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?

"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."

Sarah Glennie, director, National College of Art and Design. Photo: Peter Houlihan Photography
Sarah Glennie, director, National College of Art and Design. Photo: Peter Houlihan Photography
Director of The Gate Theatre Selina Cartmell. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Abbey directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren
Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, Sean Rainbird. Photo: Mark Condren
Virginia Teehan, director of the Hunt Museum. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The artist told the Irish Independent that he wasn't criticising any of the individuals based on their nationality, but was simply making a point.

"Anyone who knows me, knows I'm not racist or xenophobic, I'm not personally criticising any of these people running these institutions," he said. "Some people who aren't Irish and who ran our institutions over the years have been fantastic, but why are so many being run at this moment in time by people from outside the country?

"Can you imagine if someone who spent a career working in theatre in Ireland, who learned all the difficulties, trials and tribulations of theatre in Ireland, had been appointed director of the Abbey, do you think they'd dare not employ an Irish actor on stage for five months?

"That would be inconceivable... they'd understand the plight and this is not about me not liking British people or whatever, some of my friends are (British), it's an important debate, it must be wider than the Abbey. It's about a failure to support the arts in this country and it shouldn't be deflected to be about nationality."

Culture Minister Josepha Madigan expressed her "regret" that the "nationality of the directors" of the Abbey Theatre was been raised by the artist. A spokesman for Ms Madigan stated that she acknowledged the concerns of the practitioners in respect of the Abbey Theatre, but "she very much regrets that the nationality of the directors has been highlighted in this way".

"The assertion that 'at this moment in time practically every national cultural institution is being managed by an outsider' is incorrect," the spokesperson added.

In response Ballagh told the Irish Independent: "I've no time for spin or distortion of the fact from the minister.

"The whole problem is the lack of official support for the arts in Ireland. The Abbey is a symptom of what's wrong.

"It's literally impossible to earn even a modest income working in the arts in Ireland and this Government is the worst for the arts in the history of this State.

"If [the minister] can't convince the Government to raise the level of support for Irish arts, she should resign," he added.

Ms Madigan did not wish to make further comment. The Arts Council refused to comment and the Abbey Theatre, also did not respond to the issue yesterday.

Ballagh penned his original comments in a letter to the 'Irish Times' yesterday.

"For example, the director of the National Gallery of Ireland is an Englishman, the new director of the Hunt Museum in Limerick is a Welsh woman, the director of the National College of Art and Design is an Englishwoman, and the director of the Gate Theatre is an Englishwoman.

"It seems that when it comes to our cultural institutions that warning experienced by our emigrants in the past still holds sway: "No Irish need apply."

The Irish Independent contacted all the institutions mentioned but did not receive responses.

Fianna Fáil's arts spokeswoman Niamh Smyth said: "We have a wealth of Irish talent and there's no reason an Irish person couldn't be a director off any of these institutions, so why do we always have to feel we haven't the capacity or talent?" she said.

Irish Independent

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