There is still plenty we don’t know about the circumstances surrounding the almost €700,000 in costs incurred by the Abbey Theatre on “HR investigations” (a euphemism for legal fees) and termination payments for former artistic directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. But, thanks to Deirdre Falvey’s investigation in last Saturday’s Irish Times, we do now know that this tangled tale has led to serious friction between some of the protagonists, and to a protected disclosure by McLaren and Murray to the Department of Arts.
The Arts Council sent in consultants Mazars to investigate the circumstances surrounding the spending, and to establish whether public money had been used “for the purposes intended for them”. On the face of it, this was a peculiar instruction. As the council’s largest single funding recipient, the Abbey relies on the State for a very large part of its annual revenue.
But, as its final report makes clear: “Mazars cannot definitively state what sources of funding were used to cover the HR investigations and termination payments, as the Abbey Theatre has several sources of unrestricted funding and does not specifically allocate expenditure against income sources in their normal accounting records.”
You might have thought the Arts Council, which has been funding the Abbey for decades, would have been aware of this. A letter from the chair of the Abbey board, Frances Ruane, said the report “not only accepted that the Abbey Theatre had resources of its own to fund these expenditures but also did not find any evidence to contradict the Abbey Theatre’s repeated statement that it did not use Arts Council grant funding...” which is a subtly different interpretation.
One can reasonably conjecture (as we must, since the copy of the report released to The Irish Times under Freedom of Information legislation was entirely redacted), that the real purpose of the investigation was a broad scoping exercise.
In recent years, the council has taken a more interventionist role in requiring – some would say imposing – particular governance structures among its client organisations
Nothing wrong with that. But it would be preferable if this review had more transparent from the outset, and also if answers could be made public to questions such as why severance payments were paid to individuals who had apparently completed their fixed-term contracts. We do know that the council had expressed ongoing concerns about standards of corporate governance at the Abbey, and that it has attached conditions in relation to this and other matters to this year’s funding allocation.
Amid all of this, it’s worth noting that three complaints from people formerly employed at the theatre, regarding separate incidents involving Graham McLaren, have had no outcome.
McLaren and Murray’s protected disclosure to the Arts Council, the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Department of Arts sought a “full inquiry into governance failings inherent in this matter and into the questionable culture and decision-making” at the Abbey”. This has been rejected by the department on the basis that the Mazars report has essentially covered the same ground.
All of this raises governance questions not just for the Abbey but for the Arts Council itself. In recent years, the council has taken a more interventionist role in requiring – some would say imposing – particular governance structures among its client organisations. This inevitably leads at times to friction.
There are questions about how the council’s own commitment to transparency operates in practice, and about how it implements its own relationship with the bodies it supports
There’s a row going on in Listowel right now over changes in the structure of the organisation that runs the town’s decades-old Writers Week festival. The board had been run by its voluntary committee since the festival’s establishment in 1970, although a board had been established in recent years. According to local reports, Dermot McLaughlin, a consultant commissioned by the Arts Council, made a number of recommendations including the disbanding of the committee and the hiring of a curator. It was announced at a meeting in September that the board had accepted the report in full and committed to implement all of its recommendations, including the disbanding of the committee.
Responding to a query from Radio Kerry, the council said it keeps an arms length relationship with all the festivals that it supports and “any questions are for the board of Writers’ Week”.
With the support of the Arts Council, many arts organisations have moved over the last decade or more to professionalise their operations, modernise their structures and ensure they’re fully compliant with company law. While this is sometimes viewed with scepticism by arts practitioners who see more resources going into administration and less into art-making, the council has some justification for its contention that the process is necessary in order to advance the case for better State funding.
But looking at the two very different cases of the Abbey and Listowel, there are questions about how the council’s own commitment to transparency operates in practice, and about how it implements its own relationship with the bodies it supports.