Arts Centre controversy continues as petition delivered and Gillian Clarke speaks out


Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales

THE CONTROVERSY over the suspension of two senior members of staff at Aberystwyth Arts Centre has increased after a petition was presented to the Vice-Chancellor this morning.

The presentation came after National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke dedicated last night’s poetry reading at the Centre to Director Alan Hewson and Operations Manager Auriel Martin, who were suspended by the University in March.

Clarke, who lives in Llandysul, spoke of the many performances she has given at the Centre over the years, and criticised the decision to suspend Hewson and Martin.

It has been suggested that the suspensions were related to the launch of the Arts Centre’s strategic plan, which was published this week.

However, the University have denied that any suspension that might occur would be in relation to the reorganisation plans.

A spokesperson said: “If any member of staff were to be suspended, this would always be in response to evidence or allegations about that individual which need to be investigated. Under the University’s processes and procedures, no suspension could take place purely as a response to organisational change.”

The University is currently undertaking an investigation into events that took place at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in February and issues arising from them, and the spokesperson clarified that this was “nothing whatsoever to do with any alleged restructuring of the Arts Centre”.

They added: “Since the investigation is on-going the University will not comment on its nature, neither will it comment on any member of staff who may be involved.”

Aber Student Media understands that the investigation relates to the running of the Black House event on 2nd February 2013. The event made national headlines after the police stopped the music in the Great Hall to search for a mother who had been spotted carrying a baby.

A security log obtained by ASM under the Freedom of Information Act lists numerous incidents that occurred during the evening the event was held, including drug use, an attempted burglary, an attack on University staff and several fights.

The event also promised a performance from Spanglegrinders, an act in which performers use angle grinders on metal attached to their bodies. The performance was cancelled after the University expressed concerns over the risk assessments available.

A protest, backed by campus trade unions, is planned for 12pm tomorrow at the Arts Centre. Attendees are invited to wear red, and an email sent to union members and seen by ASM says “If you feel comfortable wearing a gag please bring a red or black one.” The protest does not form part of any official industrial action.

In a statement relating to the suspensions and investigation, the University said:

“Aberystwyth University has not confirmed or denied alleged suspension of staff in any public statement or to any press or media, and will not do so. The University does its utmost to ensure that staffing matters remain completely confidential at all times and has a general policy not to make public any information relating to individuals. It remains resolutely committed to this and therefore will not be drawn into any discussion regarding members of University staff.

“In general terms, and for clarification, if a member of our staff were suspended, this would be precautionary and allow everyone the space and time to establish the facts behind any issues that may have arisen. Staff on suspension continue to be employees for whom we have a duty of care. Working together with individuals we would follow our clear and agreed procedure to investigate issues, as this offers the best opportunity for the facts to be established.

“Committed”: Vice Chancellor April McMahon

“There are long established, clear and transparent processes to follow if any member of staff were to be suspended, processes that have been agreed with our recognised trades unions. It is not possible to give a precise timescale for any such investigations as they are approached on a case by case basis. Whilst the University aims to complete the work as quickly as possible, all investigations must be undertaken in as thorough and comprehensive a fashion as possible, so as to ensure the fairest possible outcome. It is standard practice for neither employer nor employee to comment during the course of an investigation.”

Speaking after the petition was handed, in Professor April McMahon said: “This morning’s meeting was constructive. We weren’t able to agree on everything and there were certain areas we’ve not been able to discuss. For instance, the University contests the accusations of heavy handed restructuring and asset stripping, on which the petition we received is predicated. However, the lines of communication are open and there can be no doubt that we have a shared commitment to the arts in mid and west Wales.

“The University appreciates and echoes many of the positive comments users and friends of the Arts Centre have made in the press and on social media. There are no plans to radically change the use of the Arts Centre or to exclude any member of the community. The University is fully committed artistically and financially to the Arts Centre and to the excellent programme of performances and events it offers.

“We now look forward to continuing the dialogue to facilitate a better understanding of the concerns of the community and the challenges that the University faces in enabling the Arts Centre to fulfil its vision of being an organisation that is open to all and which makes an important and valued contribution to the Arts in Wales and internationally.”