John M. Connolly: Procedure and the Arts Council decision

Published: 10/19/2021 1:28:22 PM

To the unfortunate, but important, clash over the cancelled arts exhibition in Northampton I would suggest a procedural point. Good procedures cannot solve every substantive disagreement, but in the present case they might well have helped to make a more balanced decision.

What I am referring to is the generally acknowledged process for successful meetings: an agenda should be published well in advance, minutes of the preceeding meeting adopted, and then the agenda items taken up one by one. Crucially, absent an emergency the agenda should not be altered during the meeting, especially not through the addition of any highly consequential item. The reason is simple: such items are of wide interest, and if they are going to be up for a vote, people with a stake in the matter have a right to be present for the discussion. Further, this “general rule of sticking to the agenda” is a safeguard against hasty and ill-considered decisions.

From what has appeared in the Gazette, we seem to have a textbook case of what can go wrong when these general rules are ignored. I do not know if there was a published agenda for the meeting of the Arts Council, but it seems certain that neither the Council members nor the exhibitors and jurors knew in advance there would be a motion to cancel the planned exhibition. As a result, those whose work was to be exhibited as well as the jurors, had no particular reason to attend.

When a highly charged accusation of racism was leveled at the Council by someone whose submitted work had been rejected, the Council did not, as the general rule would require, hit the pause button. Instead it immediately acted, thereby altering the agenda in a most significant way and proceeding to a vote that has been castigated by many in the community. This was avoidable and hence very unfortunate.

Jason Montgomery himself wrote in his op-ed about “pausing the show,” and went on to say that his group was ready to compromise: “the show would have moved forward and our coalition would be given a platform to voice our concerns.” In my view, that would have been an ideal outcome. By violating normal procedure and moving at once to cancel the exhibition, the Arts Council blundered.

John M. Connolly


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