Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Will business rally behind city festival?

The Government funding package for the Belfast Festival at Queen's announced this week now hinges on corporate sponsorship to sustain the event in the long term. Matthew McCreary looks at the 'golden opportunity' for the corporate sector in Northern Ireland

The arts industry in Northern Ireland has had little to celebrate in recent months. A disappointing allocation in the recent draft budget, a £4.5m 'raid' on lottery-based money and consistently low per capita funding have steadily eroded morale among artists and performers in the province.

The announcement on Tuesday of a £300,000 boost from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) for the Belfast Festival at Queen's would, at first glance, seem to offer a ray of hope for those struggling against the difficulties which have battered the sector recently.

After a flurry of activity earlier this year with the Save Belfast Festival campaign in this newspaper, the relative silence which followed both from DCAL and Queen's University could have been interpreted as either a good or bad thing.

The official line from both sides that "talks are ongoing" always had a Sir Humphrey-ish air about it, that really the process had reached an impasse.

Yet, as this week's announcement by Arts Minister Edwin Poots shows, there has been genuine movement towards facilitating a future for the festival.

As welcome as the announcement has been, its timing is curious, as it precedes a final and definitive financial outline being secured for the arts in the Executive budget.

Just last week, scores of artists and performers 'marched' on Stormont to show their dissatisfaction with the proposals of the draft budget and have called on the public to back their campaign for a greater financial allocation for the arts.

Mr Poots' early Christmas present for the festival seems to have a different ring about it, however, and - as with most Government 'good news' announcements - the devil is in the detail.

While the grant awarded is as much as Queen's University and festival supporters could have hoped for, it still amounts to just a shot in the arm for the long term future of the event.

The brief Press statement released on Tuesday by the Minister (brief by Government standards, that is) mentions 'corporate' or 'commercial' sponsorship three times, alongside terms such as 'sustainable model' and 'business plan'.

The message would seem to be 'Go forth and multiply', and festival organisers are now being asked to screw their business heads on and get searching for a long term cash source.

This is where the real hard work begins for the university and festival teams.

That corporate sponsorship is the way forward for the event has never really been in doubt but whether a suitable sponsor can be found is another matter.

A sponsorship deal is a marriage of sorts and finding a suitable match can be a delicate, but ultimately rewarding, process.

Corporate sponsors big enough to back an event as mighty as the Belfast Festival are not exactly ten-a-penny in Northern Ireland and it has fallen to giants like Guinness in years past to bolster the festival's funds.

There are certainly no shortage of events or establishments in Northern Ireland chasing the corporate sponsorship dollar. But to be able to attach one's name to such an event as the Belfast Festival - one of the largest and most diverse events of its kind in the UK and Ireland - would be a huge cultural and moral boost to any company.

This latest move in the ongoing festival story is a golden opportunity for locally-based companies to not only boost their own profile and reputation but that of Northern Ireland too.