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"Our festival for children is amazing, but we must fight to make sure this one won't be the last..."

By Maureen Coleman

Young at Art director Ali FitzGibbon reveals her dedication to the NI arts sector, but insists that controversial budget cuts could spell cultural disaster.

Growing up in a creative household in Cork, with a lecturer father who wrote plays in his spare time and a mother who set up a theatre company for children, it's hardly surprising Ali FitzGibbon pursued a career in the arts.

Given both her parents' passion for drama, Ali, the director of the Belfast-based Young at Art charity, developed an interest in theatre and dance at a young age. As a schoolgirl, she had high hopes of becoming a ballerina but this was later replaced by an interest in the behind-the-scenes operations of the arts industry.

Her sister Sarah and brother Ronan were inevitably bitten by the bug too. Sarah worked as an actress before moving into drama development, working with disadvantaged children in inner-city Dublin. Ronan trained as an artist and now runs his own theatre company.

"It's like a trap," Ali laughs. "We just can't get away from it. We grew up with the arts. My dad, Ger, lectured in English and was involved in setting up a drama degree at University College Cork. He also wrote plays and is a specialist in drama text, doing work on scripts for the Arts Council. Since he retired, except he's never really retired, he's been directing a few pieces and actually has a show on in Cork at the moment.

"My mum [Emilie] and dad were also involved in the Cork Theatre Company, which is closed now. It was set up around the same time as the Druid Theatre Company in Galway. Mum began to get interested in working with children and in 1985 set up her own children's theatre company. She's still running that."

After graduating from university with a degree in English and Italian, Ali began working in her native Cork, juggling four jobs simultaneously - training youth workers for an arts project, doing PR for a local theatre, fundraising for a charity and working in a music venue. She had been planning to move to Dublin to undertake a postgraduate course in arts management, having been offered a last-minute place, when fate intervened. While out in a bar one evening, Ali was introduced to Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson, who was in the city to work as the new writer-in-residence at the university. According to Ali, it was love at first sight.

"Oh, I totally fell for him straight away," she says. "A few days after we met I said to a very close friend of mine that I had met the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I met Glenn in 1993, moved to Belfast to be with him in 1994 and we were married a year later. We were together quite some time before we decided to have children."

The couple have two daughters, Jessica (Jess), who is 13 and Miranda (Mimi), who will turn nine this month. While Glenn combines his novel writing with lecturing in creative writing at Queen's University, Ali heads up Young at Art, which runs the annual, international Belfast Children's Festival. The festival, which runs from March 6 to 13 this year, is aimed at kids aged 0-14 years - and their accompanying adults. Arts events and performances take place both in and out of school time for schools, groups and families to attend.

This summer will mark Ali's 21st year in Belfast and during that time, she has worked in a number of posts in the arts sector. She helped set up the now defunct Community Arts Forum, took up a post at the Lyric Theatre and then moved to Replay Theatre Company, before eventually joining Young at Art.

"I've gone native," she tells me, with the slightest hint of a Cork accent.

It's fair to say she lives and breathes her work and believes it's a basic right that all children should be exposed to arts and culture from a young age. Not only do the arts help encourage self-expression, she points out, but they also open children up to new cultures and new experiences.

So it is a source of great sadness and frustration to Ali that the arts sector in Northern Ireland is under threat from ongoing cuts to its budget. Earlier this week, the Northern Ireland Executive announced it had found an extra £150m for its final 2015/2016 budget, with most of that money going towards education. About £60m will go towards frontline services in schools. However, some departments, including the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, will still have to make cuts, despite a slight reprieve for Northern Ireland Screen and the film industry, which had been under pressure from proposed cuts.

The Arts Council, which has been championing the 13p for the Arts campaign, posted its reaction on Twitter, describing the final budget as "bitterly disappointing" and saying it "sets spending on the arts back by a decade". And Ali agrees.

"There's been a lot of conversation this week about how the budget has recognised the strength of response from the public but I don't see how they could've listened," she says. "They had 15,000 responses about the arts budget and yet it hasn't been protected.

"I think there needs to be some very serious conversations about what is going to happen. We are already beyond the beyond in terms of our ability to find money from elsewhere. It's a very serious situation. There's a real possibility we won't have a festival next year.

"To be honest, at the moment I can't see beyond March 31, so I'm sitting here with this amazing festival lined up and the dark side of this is I don't know what's going to happen after that.

"It's so frustrating. I see ourselves as a front-line service. If it ended tomorrow, there is no state provision of the arts and culture for children, no public events for families, so if the voluntary sector don't do it, there will be no provision.

"Because of these cuts, there will be no children getting access to arts and culture. This is an issue of equality and personal development, but it's also an issue of fundamental rights.

"Children need artistic and creative experiences at a particular level. There is a feeling that children will be happy with a face painter and balloon modelling and that's not the case. Children are much more sophisticated than that."

According to Ali, introducing young people to arts in their teens is too late. She believes it needs to start when they are infants.

"Creative play and engagement changes they way children think," she says. "They are more open to diversity and different opinions. They are able to empathise as human beings. These are qualities of life that we need as a society and people talk about moving forward into a shared future!

"This is where it's at. There's no point trying to undo negative personal development though lack of arts engagement when someone is 15, 16, 18 or 21 and trying to enter the market place. They need stimulation, a concept of internationalism, free encouragement, from birth onwards. That's where the arts sector has the edge."

Young at Art already faces low funding levels and combined with more cuts, the charity is in a precarious position. It already raises between £320,000 and £330,000 a year and Ali says its staff work around-the-clock to keep their heads above water. Support from schools, parents and families for Young at Art is "significant", but Ali feels this is not reflected in the way political budgets are handed down.

She thinks many of Northern Ireland's politicians are "intimidated" by the arts and culture sector because they believe it isn't "tangible".

"They don't like things they can't measure," she claims. "There is one group that believes the arts are fundamentally radical and therefore intrinsically opposed to their way of thinking and that's not true. There's another school of thought that believes that most publicly subsidised organisations are run by wealthy people and that's not true either.

"Eight per cent of people in Northern Ireland went to an arts event last year, and more than half of them went to three events. What more evidence do they need?

"There are very few sectors you can say hit on all levels, social benefit, health benefit, education benefit. The arts sector in Northern Ireland makes us what we are. Yet I'm watching the arts sector being destroyed by a lack of political will. They think we will keep doing what we do, regardless, but we've being doing it for too long now. We can't go any further."

In recent years, while organising Belfast Children's Festival, Ali has noticed a huge drop in the number of people who can now afford to work in the field and who have the time to develop quality work. As a result of this, she says, the experiences the children are getting now is of a reduced quality. And it's all down to a lack of money for the arts.

"If you want to put on something tailor-made for a particular age group, it's hard to do so on a low budget," she points out. "If you're still working on the same budget you were working with 12 years ago, that will eventually kill off some of your imaginative reach.

"It's just not possible to make the same level of work on the same or less money that you were getting 12 years ago. Nobody can build a road or catch a bus with the same money that they had 12 years ago.

"Many of the activities that are being offered have a lighter touch, due to less time and development. There's a sense of mimicking something that they have seen somewhere else but aren't able to do fully. This just stifles both the artist and children; the ambition of doing something much bigger that can't be realised."

What particularly annoys Ali about the funding crisis facing Northern Ireland's arts sector is that it's nothing new. According to the 42-year-old, the same questions around the area of financing the arts were being raised 15 years ago. Even then, she was struggling to find the right people to work with because so many people were leaving the industry, unable to meet the costs of living.

"Do you know that four or five years ago, the average artist in Northern Ireland earned less than £8,000 a year?" she says angrily. "Less than £8,000! That's what an all-island study by the Arts Council discovered.

"If that's what it was like then, and it took two to three years to carry out that research, can you imagine what it's like now? It's 10 times worse.

"I know some artists who can't afford to switch their heating on or are having to go to food banks. These are artists who are visible. There's just no work or the ability to pay people has gone down. They might get paid for putting on an exhibition, but that's it, no other costs, no travel or anything like that.

"Someone might get hired to work on Game of Thrones, for example, but that work might last for just two months. How can they be expected to progress their career on around £7,000 a year?

"This budget crisis within the arts happened in the 1990s. They just kept loading expectations on us. If it wasn't for the arts sector you wouldn't have Game of Thrones or The Fall. It's not just the actors or crew working on these shows, it's the lighting people, the make-up artists, the costume designers. And where did they come from? The arts sector, of course."

Despite her parents' thespian leanings, Ali never felt drawn to the stage or screen herself. She prefers to work in the background, booking the performers rather than performing herself. Part of her job involves organising the programme for Belfast Children's Festival, ensuring it's a rich tapestry of dance, theatre, music and art that appeals to the various age groups. Whereas a programme for adults is usually all-encompassing, the Belfast Children's Festival itinerary must reach out to toddlers and teens.

It means Ali has to travel, albeit on a limited budget, to see what other similar festivals are offering or to attend arts showcases. So when she does manage some downtime, she likes to spend it with her husband and daughters. Already, Jess and Mimi are showing artistic streaks too, but Ali says their aspirations for the future change on a regular basis. Her only prerequisite is that both girls fulfil their potential.

"Their version of what they want to do for the rest of their lives changes once a week, if not once a day," she says. "Mimi wants to be a dancer, but also an engineer. She's talked about being a journalist and writer too. Jess at one point wanted to be an actor and a writer, then she too started thinking about journalism and the media. Personally, I think she could go for a career in law, she's quite good at arguing the bit.

"I'm just glad that they see a sense of possibility. They don't take it as a given that they will stay in the UK or Ireland. They see potential. That's important to me. I don't have any ambitions for them beyond that they fulfil their potential."

Would she not miss the girls if they left? "Of course, but I would hate for them to feel they had to stay here," she replies. "I know people who've had the benefit of seeing another part of the world and who have experienced another sense of cultural living."

Then she adds: "This is what this place needs, more sense of traffic, people who have been different places and have different ideas."

Many of Ali's old friends from her school and university days in Cork left Ireland to find employment elsewhere. Some settled in England or Paris, others travelled further afield to the US. But in recent years, they've been returning home.

Ali has no regrets about staying in Ireland, she says. She was only too happy to follow her heart and set up home in Belfast with Glenn. And while she says there is much about Belfast she loves, the lack of political support for the arts here infuriates her.

"The way in which the political and public entities work here drives me crazy," she says. "There is a lack of transparency about how decisions are made and what is really of benefit to society is not being looked at.

"The Lyric Theatre has just received 12 nominations for the Irish Times Theatre Awards, Paula Cunningham is a finalist in the Costa Short Story Awards and (short film) Boogaloo & Graham has been nominated for an Oscar. We have all these different awards going on and they're still going to cut the budget. The politicians aren't looking to the left or right. They have such a narrow focus, everything else is peripheral. Unless it cuts into their frame of reference, they just don't get it at all."

Speaking of awards, Ali was fortunate enough to get along to last year's glittering BAFTA ceremony, after hubbie Glenn and co-writer Colin Carberry were nominated for the Good Vibrations film script. It was a sensational night, with Ali engaging in some serious star-spotting. At one stage, on the red carpet, actor Matthew Modine even stood on her Ruedi Maguire-designed dress. But she didn't mind.

"I just loved the whole night," she said. "It was brilliant to people-watch. Glenn was delighted because he got to meet Noel Gallagher and I enjoyed spotting people like Olivia Colman and Emma Thompson.

"I was pretty nervous walking the red carpet but when I got to end of it, I wanted to go back and do it all over again. And though the boys didn't win, it was still a stand-out night. I loved every moment of it and was so proud of Glenn."

The Belfast Children's Festival runs from March 6-13 at venues across Belfast. For full programme details, visit belfastchildrens festival.com or tel: 028 9024 3042

Some of the highlights of this year’s Belfast Children’s Festival

Constellations . A stunning dance piece choreographed by award-winning Enrique Cabrera, performed by world-renowned Spanish dance troupe Arcaladanza and inspired by the art of Joan Miro. For age five years and over, this event will run at the Mac, on Thursday, March 12 at 10.30am and on Friday, March 13, 10.30am and 7pm.

Onirica Mecanica's unique theatre piece from Spain will have audiences spellbound as robots come to life in the most human way. For age eight and over, it runs at the Lyric Theatre on Wednesday, March 11 at 7.30pm and on Thursday, March 12 at 11am and 7.30pm.

Happy Glimmer . A fascinating production, from French company Flop, of optical illusions and magical mechanics that transform mundane machines into moving pictures. Grand Opera House, Saturday, March 7, Monday, March 9 to Thursday, March 12 and Friday, March 13.

Baby Rave . A fun-filled disco for babies and parents with non-stop music, colourful visuals and dance facilitators at the Waterfront Hall, Sunday, March 8 11.15am, 12:45pm, 2.30pm, 4pm.

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