Northern Ireland’s blossoming arts sector is enjoying an unprecedented financial bonanza which has seen world-class cultural facilities built and improved across the province.
With the new look Ulster Museum set to open its doors to the public this week, the Belfast Telegraph today reveals details of the massive £150 million investment injection which has transformed our arts infrastructure from a dilapidated state into something to be proud of.
It is one of the most apparent dividends of the peace process and a sign of a maturing society, something which Arts Minister Nelson McCausland believes is good news for Northern Ireland.
The freshly reburbished Ulster Museum was one of the key projects, along with significant renovation works at Belfast City Hall, the refitting of the nearby Ulster Hall and the new Lyric Theatre on Ridgeway Street in Belfast, which is still being built.
A £50m extension and renovation project is planned for the Central Library in Belfast as well as the new Metropolitan Arts Centre project in the city costing £14.2m, replacing the Old Museum Arts Centre.
Outside the city, the investment has continued with the state-of-the-art Braid Museum and Arts Centre in Ballymena, which opened last year, and Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, a £4m Irish language arts centres in Londonderry which opened just last month.
Mr McCausland said there had been historical underinvestment in the arts and cultural infrastructure in Northern Ireland for many years under direct rule.
He told the Belfast Telegraph: “I am delighted that my department has been able to make such a significant investment in our cultural infrastructure across Northern Ireland. The development of our infrastructure will bring benefits for local people and will also help to enhance our cultural offer for tourists.”
Chairman of the ongoing Metropolitan Arts Centre project Joris Minne said the investment was “the true peace dividend”.
“It is all about raising the standard of living, creating jobs and a society which is sophisticated and informed enough to be able to take part in the economic world that is so important,” he said.
“In Britain there are 1.1 million jobs in the arts industry, from dance to TV, to music to graphic design. But in order to get our share in this we need to be able to create an incubator where people learn these skills.
“This is not just arty-farty stuff, this is a real industry that creates real jobs and real opportunities.”
Roisín McDonough, chief executive of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, said there were now facilities of “an international standard”.
“The last decade has seen unprecedented investment in Northern Ireland’s arts and cultural venues, with the Arts Council virtually completing its ambitious building programme to provide an arts centre within 20 miles of everyone living here,” she said.
Actor Dan Gordon, best known for playing Red Hand Luke in Give My Head Peace, said the ongoing investment was a sign that politicians had “finally got their act together” in terms of the arts.
“This really opens up the art scene like never before. There are also some amazing venues outside Belfast like the Marketplace Theatre in Armagh. You always know you are going to sell out performances there, as well as the Ballymoney Town Hall,” he said.
“I remember the old venue where people were too scared to sit on the balcony seats in case they collapsed, as well as the Braid in Ballymena where I recently performed. However, I would voice a word of caution: we need a product to put in all these new and refurbished venues.”
Belfast playwright Martin Lynch echoed this view: “Without proper funding of arts groups, the massive investment will be meaningless. The capital funding is fantastic but it will not be of any great use unless the arts organisations and arts products receive revenue funding.”