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CEO of troubled arts body quits to lead rental tenancy watchdog


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With a headquarters in Kilkenny, the council is the national agency for the commercial development of Irish designers. Most of its funding comes from the Department of Enterprise.

Ms Steen had been CEO for just over four years, having previously been an executive director of EirGrid, and in senior positions with Vodafone, Shell and Ibec.

‘This is supposed to be a forum of equals, but it felt quite the opposite’

The DCCI, which says it represents more than 3,500 small- and ­medium- sized businesses and members, has been beset by internal controversy over the last year, culminating in a turbulent AGM in Galway last week.

Up to 20 craftspeople and guilds had written to the DCCI expressing dissatisfaction with the support they got at the Collect 2024 international craft and design fair in London, and say they got a solicitor’s letter in response.

Rosemary Steen. Photo: Photocall

When the matter was raised at the AGM, the meeting was told that the letter of complaint was potentially defamatory and legal proceedings might ensue.

After the Irish Independent lodged questions with the DCCI in relation to this, its head of communications contacted the newspaper to say: “We won’t be responding to your email.”

This newspaper submitted further questions to the design council on Tuesday in relation to staff turnover and redundancy payments.

In response, the DCCI said that after the board agreed a new strategic plan, the team had been restructured.

In 2022, a total of six staff left “to pursue new opportunities”, and another four either retired or took voluntary redundancy. Last year two staff left, and another staff member has left this year.

Among the craftspeople unhappy with the recent direction of the DCCI is Orla Kelly, an artist living in Dungarvan and a Fine Gael candidate in this week’s local elections.

‘There seems to have been a complete lack of engagement from DCCI with its members’

Her mother, Terry Kelly, is a former CEO of the council, and was instrumental in developing crafts courses in Thomastown and Kilkenny.

Professional courses in jewellery skills and pottery skills, which had been run by DCCI for 30 years, are currently stopped.

The jewellery course was due to recommence in the Sessions House building in Thomastown, on which €1.7m has been spent in renovation costs.

Ms Kelly described the loss of the pottery skills course as a “devastating” blow to Thomastown and the creative sector.

She also questioned the rate of staff turnover at DCCI, an organisation that employs only 23 people.

“People have been concerned about the DCCI’s record,” Ms Kelly said.

“Two amazing courses have been stopped, and staff skills and students lost to the area and the industry. There seems to have been a complete lack of engagement from DCCI with its members.”

Ms Kelly said that sending a solicitor’s letter in response to a complaint was “not the way a member-led organisation should be treating their members”.

She added that the change of CEO now provided an opportunity to rebuild the organisation.

Wicklow artist Erica Devine in her studio

Erica Devine, a Wicklow-based artist who attended the AGM last week, said there had been a “1950s Irish classroom-style atmosphere” there, with discussions repeatedly shut down, even on generalised questions.

“This is supposed to be a forum of equals, but it felt quite the opposite,” she said.

​Dr Niki Collier, a Dublin-based designer who was on the board of the DCCI for the last three years, decided not to seek re-election, as she said it had not been a happy experience.

Artist Niki Collier

She felt it could have done more to solve problems facing the organisation.

“I was particularly surprised to see the courses closed,” she said. “Third-level education providers usually do not cease to operate during periods of renovation or change of accreditation.”

In a statement, Peter Hynes, chair of DCCI, thanked Ms Steen for “all her work in repositioning DCCI over the past four years” and for promoting Irish craft and design internationally.

“We will begin the search for her replacement shortly. I will shortly commence, together with my board colleagues, the search for a new CEO to build on what’s been achieved at DCCI and support the great potential of the design and craft sector in Ireland,” he added.

Ms Steen said the DCCI had achieved a lot in the last four years and adapted to a new strategic approach.

“This brought a lot of change – and growth in funding to the organisation, which delivered the strong results we saw at the AGM last week,” she added.

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