Wednesday 22 May 2019

Artist who refused to be gagged withdraws from council exhibit


An artist has withdrawn an exhibition in a row over censorship after a county council arts office, fearful of losing funding, suggested changes to photographs mildly critical of the public sector and Ireland's cosy cartels.

Offaly County Council's arts office confirmed to the Sunday Independent that they feared that they could lose State support because of the exhibition that featured photographs of local people taken by Carolina Gustavsson.

The council's arts office was alarmed at direct and indirect quotations from the subjects of the photographs that were to be included in an exhibition planned for the foyer of the local authority's headquarters.

Three photographs forwarded to the council by the photographer caused particular offence to the local authority.

One featured a local teacher, Catherine, sitting in her farmhouse-style kitchen. The offending section stated: "Talking to different employers around the country during the past year, they told Catherine how difficult it is to get people to work. She believes that as long as people don't want to do a decent day's work but simply get paid, and as long as the unions won't allow them to be sacked for that, we are not going to get out of this recession. 'The solution is much in our own hands, but do we have the will to take it?' asked Catherine."

Another of the portraits, of "Dave and Irene", also caused concern. The portrait of the couple outside their home was to have included the following comments: "Dave was listening to a documentary where an economist explored the roots of the problem and thinks it might be that Ireland is too small and too personal to keep the necessary discipline: ' Paddy is a politician who knows Sean whose cousin Eamonn is a banker who knows Aengus who's a solicitor... so cosy and corrupt. A change in the political system is badly needed and, to start with, an apology from the people responsible. Instead they continuously claim they did nothing wrong'."

Ms Gustavsson -- who is originally from Sweden but lives in Co Offaly -- said she was stunned to receive an email from the council's arts officer, Sinead O'Reilly, questioning the commentary attached to three of the portraits and suggesting changes to the texts

Ms O'Reilly stated in her email: "It is Catherine, Dave and Irene and Jean and Conor which remain problematic. Can I suggest the following edits, which retain the message, just eliminates comments that can be read as offensive to the organisation which is both funding and hosting this exhibition. Yes, I agree that freedom of speech is important, and that the comments are nothing new, we hear them all the time, in fact they are typical of ranting you hear on the radio every day. I was expecting political content, but more insightful comments than merely suggesting that the organ-isation (funding your project) is corrupt."

Ms O'Reilly's email then suggested that funding could be at stake: "This context is fragile. This is the organisation that funds the arts in Offaly. This exhibition will be up when debates are going on as to how much (or whether at all!) to fund the arts in 2011. It is not a gallery or an arts centre where controversial content should have freedom to air, but a political organisation with the power to completely eliminate the arts service in Offaly if they felt warranted.

"Yes, the truth hurts; but my manager and I are not prepared to allow that truth to damage the hard work the arts service has achieved to be able to fund artists, projects, festivals etc."

Ms Gustavsson told the Sunday Independent she was shocked that "innocent and innocuous comments" could be the subject of censorship.

"I could understand if Coca Cola or any large corporation doesn't want to sponsor an exhibition that makes them look like a company who doesn't care about workers' rights etc.

"But a council is different, or at least in my opinion should be different. I wanted to document the state of the nation and how it has changed in the last 10 to 15 years.

"I could never have guessed that they would react like they have," she said.

Sean Murray, the council's director of services who is in charge of arts, defended the council's action.

He said he was aware of the email sent by Ms O'Reilly as he had been copied on its content. He said the council agreed with her concerns.

"Offaly County Council is a public and democratic organisation and all exhib-itions within our offices should reflect our ethos and our broad community," he said.

"Offaly County Council had expressed concerns to Ms Carolina Gustavsson, as early as last March, with regard to the scope, edited content and cross section of persons being asked to contribute to the project across the county.

"We did not request any quotations of participants to be edited, but asked the artist to reconsider the tone of some of her edited text in consideration of the organisation who was providing this opportunity for her.

"We were concerned that offence could have been taken and this may have impacted negatively on arts funding, for which so many community groups, individuals and arts organisations depend on," he said.

Sunday Independent

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