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Notes from Trustees

LogoCatherine Davis, the Secretary of AD:uk writes: London, Cardiff, Cambridge and Dublin, the life of AD:uk Trustees and Regional Coordinators is never dull and over the last month has taken in a swathe of notable cities.

London, at the end of March, saw the National Meeting reviewed and updated to better reflect Regional Coordinators’ needs. This was followed by a very successful seminar in Cardiff in early April exploring responses to child poverty. The Trustees assembled in Cambridge on the 15th and 16th April for an Awayday where we were joined by our chair, Jane Wilson. It was an excellent meeting which sets AD:uk up well for this year and beyond. However in addition to all this good, but well established work, a AD:uk group went to Dublin last week to meet Arts Officers from the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland for the first time.

The event (part of the celebration of Ireland’s six month Presidency of the EU) was instigated by Sinead O’Reilly and her colleagues, particularly Lucina Russell, of the Association of Local Authority Arts Officers (ala:ao). The aim was to mark a ‘new dialogue across the Irish Sea exploring shared experiences, responsive and effective local arts development and building future forums for European exchange’.

The welcome we received was as warm and friendly as anyone who knows Ireland or the Irish would have expected. Both days’ events were held at the Chester Beatty Library which I had fondly imagined was a neighbourhood public library named after a local worthy. Instead I found myself in the 2002 European Museum of the Year sited in the grounds of Dublin Castle, an institution which has more in common with the British Library than the average local authority library.

The first day was a closed session during which the two organisations had the chance to meet and get to know one another. As might be expected the fundamentals and values of both groups were the same. However the scale of the respective countries and arts development delivery is very different and will take time to think about and digest. For example, knowing the economic difficulties Ireland has faced I had expected redundancies and arts service closures as well as mixed arts development delivery. In particular I had expected to meet and learn from Irish Arts Officers who were coping with freelancing after long local government service.  Instead I was the harbinger of a possible future, as they look forward to local government reorganisation in the next year or so. Moreover there didn’t seem to be any services delivered through Trusts or other alternative delivery and the thought of these produced a collective shudder. However part of the reason for meeting was so the ala:ao could understand what their future might hold and how they as an organisation might adapt.

One of the AD:uk Trustees thought  that perhaps Irish local government was still more independent of central government. The Irish population is smaller and there is a real connection to local issues and needs in a way that isn’t happening here. For example local government reorganisation will see a county with a population of 50,000 merge with a city of the same number to become a new county and city authority of 100,000 and this was not unusual.

This impression of local connection was reinforced at the civic reception where we were addressed by the equivalent of the Chair of the LGA, the Director of Arts Council Ireland and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The latter, Mr Jimmy Deenihan (referred to universally by the Irish Arts Officers as Jimmy), was previously a well known sportsman. In his speech he urged the Irish officers of consider adopting a strategy that had been developed by the Arts Officer in his home county of Kerry. Apparently this had first been raised two years ago (and quietly ignored) but the officers realised they might now have to look at it again. The address by the Arts Council also felt familiar, as the Irish organisation grapples with reduced funding and the need for various clients to work more closely together.

The second day was a public seminar which discussed areas of provision such as arts and health, young people and music, public art and Cities of Culture from an Irish and Welsh, or English, perspective. This was the day where the similarities really appeared, in particular music provision for young people (which in Ireland is being funded by U2 but needs sustainable funding to continue) and Cities of Culture. The latter session included Shona McCarthy giving an update on Derry/Londonderry and Sheila Deegan describing the model which saw Limerick designated as Ireland’s City of Culture in 2014. Three of the AD:uk delegates are currently involved in bidding to become the next UK City of Culture so once again the similarities and contrasts were topical.

A meeting of arts officers would barely be worthy of the name without an injection of art or performance and this trip was rich in both. There were the visual delights of the Chester Beatty library, where my favourite item was a Japanese scroll depicting a poetry contest with humans in animal form (a sort of Richard Scarry for aesthetes). Our civic reception was followed by a trip to the Lir Theatre for a one off showcase by the Irish Street Arts, Circus and Spectacle Network. This wonderful evening also featured a number of AD:uk delegates who were enticed onto the stage as stooges but came out covered in glory. The second day included an extract from ‘The wheelchair on my face’ by Sonya Kelly. Her one woman piece won the 2012 Scotsman Fringe First Award in Edinburgh. It was hilarious, touching and entertaining, speaking loudly to anyone unfortunate to wear glasses from childhood.

Networking is at the heart of AD:uk – we know that sharing and collaboration is enriching and empowering. We hope that the visit will be the start of a new partnership between colleagues in the UK and Ireland and one that will be of mutual benefit for both memberships (especially if you are seeking European partners for possible EU programmes, which we may now be able to broker for you). We intend to exchange reciprocal memberships and we have also invited a delegation of Irish Arts officers to our annual conference in November in Birmingham so that we can continue to forge links.

We need to think about the value and purpose of international networking and sharing – do let us know about your international links or the networks that you feel AD:uk should be exploring.

So to sum up, the visit was an enlightening, thought provoking two days spent in the company of a group of consummate professionals with whom we have much in common. The long term cooperation with the ala:ao looks promising and both sides, once they have had time to think about, and digest, the experience, will talk further. In the meantime a group of Irish officers will be joining us in Birmingham for our conference in November. That will be held in another library, the new state of the art Birmingham City Library; however I bet it won’t be able to offer a 17th century image of a dragon giving a snake what for in a poetry competition!