On 25th March 2021, we gathered practitioners, researchers and funders to talk about the future of the arts ecology in Northern Ireland. 'Horizons: Re-Imagining Cultural Sustainability’ thought about how organisations can sustain themselves financially, the role of business models, how funders should invest, how strong transformative leadership can drive change internally and externally, and how place-making and supporting communities are at the heart of our sector.
Ultimately, the topics and conversations within Horizons dealt with the same considerations that informed our new Blueprint programme, as both posed questions about how we guarantee the best possible future for our arts sector. As we welcome applications for Blueprint, it felt timely to share a series of blogs from three valued Horizons contributors and attendees, all of which consider how we build a more sustainable sector, together.
Our final guest contributor is Hilary Copeland, Director of Fighting Words NI.
Hilary Copeland has worked in literary arts and event management since 2008. Whilst studying at the University of St Andrews she was a venue assistant at the Stanza Poetry Festival and The Byre Theatre. After graduating Hilary volunteered with the inaugural Belfast Book Festival before joining the Programming Team at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. From 2010 she worked on a freelance basis for clients including the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, Kabosh, Whittrick Press, Young at Art, and Belfast Children’s Festival. Hilary was appointed General Manager of The John Hewitt Society in 2014. She is Vice-Chair of the Integrated Education Alumni and a board member of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
Throughout the pandemic, one purely selfish loss I’ve felt has been what a colleague terms ‘happenstance’ – the unexpected bumping into someone you know, and standing around shooting the breeze for too long until you’re late for your next appointment. Belfast lends itself incredibly well to this sort of random encounter. Over the past decade that I’ve worked in the arts in NI, this has long been my favourite thing about working in a small, interconnected place, and I’ve missed it terribly.
‘Horizons’ helped ease that dearth of connection and conversation. Listening to people I know and people I don’t talk insightfully, reflectively, honestly and realistically about working as arts professionals was helpful in reminding me that there will be a far side to this lonesome lockdown experience. What that will look like remains unclear.
The gravity of what the arts has experienced throughout the pandemic is all too real – as a salaried arts worker I am very aware of how fortunate I am, and how vital yet fragile the freelance ecosystem is. We’re looking at a sector that is vulnerable, often underemployed and underpaid. Questions that I asked myself were: how can I not only better support this ecosystem but strengthen it? What can I do to provide more entry points to the arts for a more diverse range of people? And just as importantly, how can I sustain those jobs?
Panellists spoke about more radical approaches to arts programmes, and I loved that. Alan Lane from Slung Low talked about how his theatre company is interwoven within the community and moved to respond to the needs of local people throughout the pandemic. I was inspired hearing about how business models can be formulated that are imbued with this ethos.
I always love hearing from Ruth McCarthy at Outburst and Kwa Daniels from Bounce, who are both using digital technology not only to redress inequalities of representation, access and engagement, but also because of how creatively exciting it is to create and present art in different ways.
Many of the speakers echoed Mary Nagele’s opening statement on how inhibiting the existing funding models are to a sustainable and healthy arts community in NI. A cross-departmental creative taskforce that breaks us out of the limiting, exhausting annual funding cycle is something I would like to see, coming with a political will, combined with tangible action, that invests in the wellbeing of communities. Joy has been thin on the ground over the past year in so many ways, with tragic, irreversible consequences – investing in joy should be a political no-brainer.
This ground-breaking 5 year programme will support a group of NI arts organisations in building their sustainability, helping them to claim creative freedom by building their financial resilience.
Find out more and apply for Blueprint by downloading the brochure and application form here.
Arts & Business NI is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.