Belfast was a whirlwind – meetings and visits with more than 20 people working in a variety of arts, education and community-based organizations. I don’t know where to begin, there are so many take-aways. The people are genuine, passionate and determined. The city has a beautiful grit and colorful character, but enough polish and shine to mark their optimistic outlook. When you reflect on the decades of violence and conflict that they experienced, you come to fully appreciate the magnitude of the statement they are making with their harbor – lined with new, gleaming glass buildings. The glass may be fragile, but the city seems unbreakable. They are not the city they once were, and they are ready to move forward.
Despite this highly visible progress, my sense is that the the built environment is moving at a much faster pace of change than the collective conception of their identity. In my many conversations, what really stood out was the legacy of community art in shaping their identity. In Belfast, art is used as one of the most powerful and effective means for moving their people forward. Art with heart and art with purpose. As one artistic director said, so simply and eloquently, “Art is about connecting with another human being. That’s what we’re trying to do.” They recognize that art is about people first and foremost. It is indeed about making connections. Or, to illustrate that point more bluntly as one arts leader did, “You won’t shoot someone in the knees if you’ve developed your empathy gene!” The arts are about stirring emotions, sharing stories, provoking thoughts…and yes, developing our empathy gene.
The legacy of community led art in Belfast is notable. Perhaps out of necessity, their arts have been led by artists and the community. The massive arts institutions that we have in the U.S. are no where to be found in Northern Ireland. Their arts have been in service to the community – a catalyst in social, creative and economic regeneration. I had the privilege of seeing Young at Art and Fighting Words Belfast conducting cross-cultural programming in creative writing with 10-11 year old students from different geographic and religious backgrounds; I talked with Replay Theatre and learned about the imaginative approach they are taking to create extraordinary multisensory theatre experiences for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities; I heard about the partnership between the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and pubic health agencies to develop research and programs to use the arts to help build mental resilience in teens at risk of suicide and to tackle social isolation in older people to improve health outcomes; I visited Creative Artists Exchange Studios and discovered the work they are doing to regenerate low-income, fractured communities in East Belfast; I met with leaders from Belfast Street Art Festival, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and Culture Night and I found out how they have used their programs to reclaim the streets for the community and make high quality arts experiences accessible to all; and these are just some of the many examples I encountered.
Some of this programming is designed to confront issues – ranging from sectarianism, to health and well-being, to community regeneration – head on, and I have no doubt that this is a result of the local funding which is very purposefully directed toward programs that deliver social impact. However, the wide-spread approach to arts in Belfast seems to be largely guided by an ethos that values and demands high artistic quality, but that equally upholds the relationship that art has with its community. To do it well, it requires:
- Authentic relationships between artists and people,
- Building trust between residents, artists and organizations,
- Being relevant and responsive to changing community needs, and
- Listening to multiple voices and being inclusive of those who have “less” – however you define it.
The intrinsic value of the arts is undeniable and every community deserves the beauty of art in their lives. Belfast is providing this, and so much more. To all of the arts organizations I met with, thank you for sharing the beautiful, important work you are doing across Belfast. You are making the world talk about you for all the right reasons!