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Giving art a new impetus - An Interview with Roisin McDonough

Wednesday 16th August 2000 at 10am 0 Comments

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By Liz Trainor

(Reproduced from the Irish News)

ENTHUSIASTIC: Roisin McDonough, the new head of the Arts Council, will be responsible for leading the arts in Northern Ireland into a new era PICTURE: Brendan Murphy

As she prepares to step into her new post as head of the Arts Council, Roisin McDonough talks to Liz Trainor about the challenges she is ready to face and her vision for the arts in Northern Ireland at the start of a new century

YOU don’t even have to talk to Roisin McDonough to realise she is an aficionado of art — you just have to glance at the walls of her office.

Adorned with the works of contemporary Irish painters, it is obvious the West Belfast Partnership Board chief — whose background is in policy-making — will make a smooth transition to her new post as head of the Arts Council.

"Do you like the paintings?" she asked.

"When we moved here I thought ‘this is a large office with a large space, how can I make it more interesting and stimulating for people coming into it’?

"So I rang the Arts Council and they were very helpful and we managed to borrow some of the paintings from their public art collection, so we have these incredible works of people like Rita Duffy, Michael Donnelly, Dermot Seymour, well known Northern Ireland artists, adorning the walls," she said.

Her image as the faceless bureaucrat, a trouble-shooting policy-maker concerned only with bread-and-butter issues is, at once, dispelled.

Enthusiastically, she argues that it is possible to bring her policy background into one of the most demanding jobs in the arts world.

"I can combine what I know," she said. "I have a policy understanding of the arts and, of course, a keen lay person’s delight of the arts."

Her CV is an impressive mix of policy-making coupled with a community and voluntary sector focus in regeneration.

She worked for a number of years in central government before being seconded as team leader to the Making Belfast Work initiative in north Belfast in 1995, where she wrote a policy document on partnerships between the public, community and private sectors.

Ten years ago she worked in Craigavon on an anti-poverty initiative and was chair of the Anti-Poverty Network.

She has also been active with the Probation Board for a number of years, is a member of Broadcasting Council and has also had a book published.

She came to the West Belfast Partnership Board — which is charged with tackling the huge social need and lack of opportunities in the area — three years ago, to draw together strands of consultation into a workable strategy.

She has overseen the execution of a small business audit, a training audit and will help launch a web site with information about potential investment opportunity in the area.

She is involved in negotiations over the former Whiterock army base — to develop it as a technical innovation centre — and is currently talking to the IDB about the future of the Mackies site.

The Springvale campus, in which she has been very much involved, is one project she is keen to see for west Belfast.

"I want to ensure it comes to west Belfast. It is a £70m project and will make a significant impact in terms of, not only providing life-long learning for young people, but realistically will help regenerate the area and provide a focus for that marriage between university and high-tech spin out business opportunities.

"It is a beacon for the future, something for successive generations; hopefully it will also trigger the kind of economic and social regeneration needed for west Belfast."

Only last week she oversaw the launch of the Partnership Board’s tourism guide for west Belfast and she is actively involved with other city partnerships in helping tackle educational under-achievement.

"Through all the collaborative work the board is well positioned at this moment and there is a solid foundation there... and I know that the board agree with that."

It is this impressive record that will undoubtedly lend a critical edge to the daunting Arts Council portfolio which she is set to inherit.

The council, with an annual budget of around £15m, often comes in for severe criticism about how it funds particular projects. It rejects charges of bias, denying that it blatantly ignores community arts in favour of high arts.

The unfavourable view is one the out-going Partnership Board chief is also acutely aware of and she is preparing to face the challenges which lie ahead.

"The Arts council is conscious of its image and has had a review of its last strategy.

"One of the many issues it faces is about inclusion and access to the arts, without sacrificing artistic excellence.

"Sometimes people make erroneous assumptions that community arts is somehow at the lower end of artistic excellence of the scale and the high arts are the most excellent.

"I actually think that is an unhealthy distinction; high excellence and social inclusion are not necessarily competing."

She cites the recent visit by the Ulster Orchestra to Clonard monastery where a disability arts group played alongside the orchestra.

"It was an incredible wonderful evening," she said.

"What I am saying is that, yes, it is important that we develop and maintain the arts infrastructure here. But it is very important that everyone feels they can have access to that, regardless of what art form it is, regardless of their background, so that it is truly accessible to everybody.

"Audience reach is something the council is very aware of and I hope to be able to work with arts organisations right across the spectrum as well as key arts groups to do that."

She is keen to develop a number of areas and hopes to develop the performing arts and drama.

"It seems incredibly popular here but there is a need to get arts into the curriculum a bit more. It has rather been squeezed out".

Ms McDonough is also keen to develop public art, including sculpture, and sees political street murals developing beyond their current subject matter to embrace a more general artistic theme.

"I think that there are real challenges in this part to Ireland. Northern Ireland is a unique place with a unique history and is unique in terms of cultural diversity.

"We are now moving into a time of hope and, for the first time, look into the future."

With the help of the assembly, she also feels the arts are in a strong position to move forward "culturally, socially and politically".

"We now have a minister who can articulate on our behalf. I hope we can increase the budget to develop the arts programme.

"Then there’s the bid to make Belfast the European City of Culture in 2008. A plan and strategy is being developed for that.

"Even if the Belfast bid does not succeed, the fact that people have even a vision of where they want to be by 2008, which places the arts and culture at the heart of that, is something that is worth fighting for.

"We’ll put all our efforts into that."

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