Viewpoint: Assembly just the ticket for Festival
Another Belfast Festival at Queen's opens its doors to the public this evening - but the real drama this year is taking place off stage. Despite record levels of advance bookings, the event faces a renewed struggle to balance its books, and the future of the annual entertainment feast is uncertain.
Indeed, this time last year some doubted whether another festival would take place. But public consciousness was stirred as the result of a Save the Festival campaign backed by The Belfast Telegraph.
Almost 5,000 people signed a petition which was forwarded to the then Culture Minister, Maria Eagle. In January, as a result of this campaign and a considerable amount of lobbying, the Department of Culture (DCAL) pledged funding of £150,000 to this year's festival, which enabled the organisers to press ahead with their plans.
But given that the DCAL underwriting is one-off funding, nobody knows what the future holds. As lead sponsor, Queen's University is prepared to continue its support of £300,000 per annum, but has served notice that it cannot continue to pick up the tab for the annual loss made by the festival.
For their part, festival organisers have trimmed their sails this year. Staff numbers have been reduced and the marketing budget has been cut by 50%.
Even so, the festival costs £1.35m a year to stage, and is relying increasingly on corporate sponsorship to keep its losses to a minimum. But there is a considerable reward for this investment over and above the pleasure which the Belfast Festival gives its audiences.
The festival is estimated to produce a boost of £7m to the local economy, and among those reaping the benefits are local hotels, restaurants, and the tourism sector in general.
Despite the expansion of the entertainment scene in recent years, the festival is still a highlight of the cultural calendar in Belfast. Already, 30,000 tickets have been sold for this year's event, and box office takings have grossed £500,000. There is abundant choice, with 85 shows at 26 venues.
As the festival gets into full swing, every effort must be made behind the scenes to ensure that this year's event is not the final act. A Belfast autumn without a festival would be unthinkable.
Queen's continues to offer generous support to the festival, but it cannot be expected to go on picking up the shortfall. While determined efforts must be made to increase the level of corporate sponsorship - and local firms which are prospering must not be found wanting - the buck, ultimately has to stop with DCAL. It would be the ultimate irony if the much-loved Belfast Festival, kept afloat this year by direct rule, was to founder at the hands of the local Assembly.