Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

The show must go on, but for how much longer?

The Belfast Festival at Queen's returns in November with another strong line-up. But with long-term funding still not yet secured, Matthew McCreary looks at what the future holds for the troubled event

Another year, another Belfast Festival at Queen's. We were told that this year's event would be a scaled- down affair. But a glance at the programme reveals a not inconsiderable line-up of talent, from veteran comedians Frank Skinner and Bill Bailey to Irish music legends The Chieftains.

The listings also boast some real curveballs, including a rare live show from legendary Scottish band The Blue Nile, cult indie filmmaker David Lynch and novelist Louis de Bernieres.

Although the names may be big, these acts and personalities still offer something a bit different, which is what people look for in the festival.

And, although, it may be a strong programme, it gives little away in terms of reassurance for the future.

It is understood talks and discussions about the future of the festival are due to resume soon, but how these will build further upon previous discussions is anyone's guess. This year's festival was only saved through a major financial lifeline from former arts minister, Maria Eagle.

Her last-minute intervention was a welcome surprise but still did not produce quite as much money as organisers had sought.

That was in February, seven months ago, and so much has happened since then. Northern Ireland has a new Assembly and a new Culture and Arts Minister.

Edwin Poots has done his best to show an interest in the arts, but his time and attention is in increasingly greater demand over highly-contentious issues such as the Maze stadium plans.

We have also had the well-received Rediscover Northern Ireland programme and the associated Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC, both of which have helped sell the province to an international audience and which will, hopefully, reap rewards in years to come.

However, a potential killer blow has also been dealt to the arts sector here with the announcement that £4.5m of Lottery funding is to be diverted from the arts over the next few years to help support the 2012 London Olympics.

In an industry which is already far behind the rest of the UK and Ireland in terms of per capita funding, this has sounded major alarm bells.

When the Belfast Telegraph launched its Save Belfast Festival campaign earlier this year, it was from a position of relative confidence that some kind of long- term solution could be found.

Money is even tighter now than it was then and the prospect of public funders parting with more cash from their diminishing budgets seems improbable.

The real key to the future of the event is, it seems, in private sector backing.

This is hardly a new idea and those behind the festival are working hard to try and establish long-term partnerships with local investors.

There has never been a better time for the private sector to get involved with the arts here.

But with more and more non-festival events and venues opening up in the province, the festival increasingly finds itself up against stiff competition.

Whether we will be flocking to the festival in years to come (or even the year to come) will be decided over the next little while. A good response (particularly in a financial sense) to this year's festival will add weight to the argument to save it.

That said, last year's festival grossed record takings and still faced the threat of closure.

Those whose livelihoods depend upon the festival will no doubt have a few concerns at the back of their minds.

They can only hope someone out there is listening.

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