Hi Stephen! We're looking forward to welcoming you as the keynote speaker at our annual governance conference later this month.
Tell us a bit about your background – where are you from and what was your path to your current day job?
I qualified as a Chartered Surveyor in 1985 and after working in a Belfast Commercial Estate Agents I joined the commercial property team of the NI Housing Executive working on the large-scale regeneration of pockets of Belfast. That fascination with urban regeneration took me to London where I secured a post in the London Docklands Development Corporation. I stayed for 15 years and finished as Senior Estate Manager. For the final five years I managed the structural closure of the organisation which focused on transferring all assets to third parties. Several old listed buildings were transferred to arts groups who could apply their imagination to generate extra beneficial life from otherwise unusable assets. This was an early version of the community asset transfer and I loved the energy that arts groups put into their projects, so it was an honour and pleasure to work with them. My love of property and the challenge of change encouraged me to set up my own company with my brother who had been in building contracting for many years so together our compatible skills make a formidable team. We love listed buildings and finding new uses that enhances their character and gives them new life.
What is it about the Open House Festival that attracted you to the Board – and that keeps you there?
The duo of Kieran and Alison have such a love for what they do – they have a focus, drive and honesty that is compelling.
Scooting forward five years, what would you like Open House to have achieved under your watch?
Definitely ownership of the refurbished Bangor Court House with a sustainable agenda stimulating a new generation into the arts in all its different fields as free from public sector funding streams as possible. If certain public bodies come knocking on the door to offer funds, then we know we’ll have “won” and we can then choose what to do but we’re not doing stuff just for funds. It's not arrogance but Kieran and Alison know what can sell and what is true to itself and worthy of support. A local government arts officer doesn’t always have the same “market” sense or can be told what to do by others.
What are the major challenges you see facing Chairs and Company Directors in the charity arts sector? (And have you any thoughts on how to face them?)
Major challenges are funding, funding and funding – not just securing unfettered funds but of securing support from structures of governance that are fixated with addressing the history of social division and deprivation. These are important issues, but the arts stimulate aspiration and exploration and are in themselves solutions to social division and deprivation. There needs to be a healthier balance. There needs to be some form of seed funding to stimulate arts activity and support to help professionalise Boards to focus on their sustainability.
What is the best, most memorable cultural experience you’ve ever had?
One of the earliest and most awaking cultural experiences I had was in my teens attending the Lyric and seeing Equus performed on stage. The intensity of the acting, the powerful sounds created by the horses, the fast dialogue and the potential for violence was all seriously edgy but stimulating to an innocent teenager. Whenever I lived in London I went to the Islamic Centre and in complete blackout heard musicians from the middle east playing flute. You just closed your eyes and focused on the sound – it was so totally immersive and captivating – it was a form of therapy.
What’s your favourite book/ piece of music/band/poem/actor/singer/dancer/comedian/quote?
Favourite book – Meeting with Remarkable Men by Gurdjieff; Music - Into my Arms by Nick Cave & One World by John Martyn; I have a big love of contemporary singer songwriters like Bill Callahan, Ryley Walker, Foy Vance, John Grant but would still enjoy hearing middle eastern music and have yet to see the Whirling Dervishes. Without any doubt my favourite artist of all times is and has been since grammar school, Salvador Dali – he was a true eccentric genius who knew the value of art and money. He had no fear and explored everything with such an enquiring mind. He also had an incredible cheek which is part of the Northern Irish mindset I enjoy.
Arts & Business is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.