Maureen Kennelly

Maureen Kennelly

ARTS AND culture minister Catherine Martin came in for (yet more) criticism this week as a result of her ongoing failure to appoint a chair to the Arts Council, which has a budget this year of no less than €134m. Fans of Goldhawk will be well aware of how long it can take Martin to fill vacancies on arts institutions but there is also another issue relating to the Merrion Square Mafia that may have been distracting her.

Kevin Rafter, who had been appointed chair in June 2019, ‘pulled a Robbo’ at the end of last year when he opted to jump ship early in order to undertake a six-month sabbatical gig as a Fulbright scholar at Boston College.

Goldhawk is sure that, by the time he departed, the DCU academic was familiar with the car crash of an IT project that has started to ratchet up huge bills on Merrion Square, way in excess of what was originally budgeted for.

Arts Council clients have been regularly informed for some time now that a new IT database system is in the offing. This is to replace the existing, much-derided and clunky system and provide a more streamlined online applications process for funding for the hundreds of client organisations and individual artists who are assessed for grants on an annual basis by the council.

The project dates back a number of years and while no one will tell Goldhawk how much taxpayers’ money is involved, it is understood that an initial €2m was greenlighted after the initial sanction by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in July 2019.

Since then, there have apparently been quarterly “liaison meetings” between the Arts Council and Martin’s mandarins “at which ongoing programmes are discussed, including the progress of the IT applications system”.

Those meetings are presumably pretty short, given that there has been sod all “progress” to report, with the project having been the subject of redesigns. In the meantime, the meter is ticking at quite a pace, adding millions to the initial planned spend.

Goldhawk understands that a Grant Thornton consultant has now estimated that the finished product could be at least another three years away and the budget could yet top €7m. Given the council imposes very strict conditions in relation to the drawdown of grants by its clients, this is not a good look.

What any new chair of the Arts Council (as well as the six ordinary members still to be appointed) will want to know from director Maureen Kennelly is how the project has been managed, given the council’s own lack of expertise in the IT area.

According to the arts department, it continues to be updated on the project, while the Arts Council had nothing to say about the budget for its IT upgrade but did admit that the existing user experience “is not good”.

Furthermore, in relation to the so-called “transformation programme” that started nearly five years ago, “we are very disappointed for a variety of reasons this is not in place. We are engaging with the original contractors in relation to possible redress.”

Watch this space.

McIlroy Flop

Related Articles: