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Arts Council says sorry after gaffe of ‘ill-judged’ adversity campaign

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The Arts Council advert featuring the great Nina Simone

The Arts Council advert featuring the great Nina Simone

Sarah Bannan of the Arts Council

Sarah Bannan of the Arts Council

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The Arts Council advert featuring the great Nina Simone

Staff at the Arts Council said they should have been consulted about an “ill-advised” and “disappointing” promotional campaign that resulted in an embarrassing public apology.

The body was forced to withdraw the campaign after an “insensitive” advert was published, comparing the challenges faced by Irish artists during the pandemic with American singer Nina Simone and racial segregation in the US.

Internal records detail how the Art Flourishes in Spite of Adversity campaign also caused consternation among staff at the agency when it was launched in late summer.

An email from Arts Council head of literature Sarah Bannan read: “I know that for my team, and for the managers I’m regularly in touch with, this was a disappointing and ill-judged campaign.”

She told the agency’s director, Maureen Kennelly, it was “frustrating” that consultation had not taken place internally at any stage.

Ms Bannan wrote: “I know the organisation can seem negative, but I think some level of consultation around big campaigns like this could help avoid this kind of backlash.”

The email said the controversy had been “stressful”, with Ms Bannan saying she understood the director might be “feeling the strain” and that the public apology had been welcome.

“I hope you don’t mind me letting you know what’s been a shared feeling of frustration and disappointment from many colleagues,” she wrote.

In response, Ms Kennelly said consultation would “without question” have helped and should have happened.

“I do appreciate how difficult and frustrating it could be for staff dealing with this. And of course, I don’t mind you sharing that,” she wrote.

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Records released under FoI also detail how Ms Kennelly wrote to members of the Arts Council, alerting them to the problems surrounding the campaign.

She said they were probably already aware of “a good deal of negative comment on social media” and that the initiative had been paused pending a review.

One member, the documentary maker and former journalist Helen Shaw, wrote: “Well done Maureen, right response.”

Another, dance artist Fearghus Ó Conchúir, replied: “I think it takes confidence to admit when something hasn’t landed as intended. Well done for responding swiftly and directly.”

Ms Kennelly responded to thank him, saying the apology seemed to have been “generally well received”.

“I’ve just had a good conversation with Arts and Disability Ireland about this and they are very happy to know that we have pulled the campaign,” she wrote.

Arts and Disability Ireland had already written to say they were unhappy with two ads from the campaign that focused on disability, one relating to painter Frida Kahlo and the other to Beethoven.

Executive director Pádraig Naughton wrote: “I have been unfortunate enough to hear the Beethoven advert on RTÉ Radio 1.

“Sadly, it follows the same tragic narrative as the Frida [Kahlo] advert, which in a thread on Twitter over the weekend I described as ‘plain and simple misguided ableist nonsense and worse than disappointing’.”

The promotional campaign was also criticised by the Arts Council’s head of festivals and events, Karl Wallace, who said that while “the intention was honourable” it was a setback for their work.

A spokesman for the Arts Council said: “We acknowledge that better, richer decisions are made by more diverse groups, and for any future such campaigns, wider input will be elicited.”


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