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Working at Man City was driving force behind Belfast woman launching arts fest

Sarah McBriar tells David O'Dornan how her job at the treble-winning English champions inspired her to make noise in the world of visual arts

When Manchester City lifted the FA Cup on Saturday to mark a historic domestic treble, the victory came as no surprise to Belfast woman Sarah McBriar.

She was part of the set-up at City just as they started to taste success in the modern era.

And after six years at the Etihad learning what it takes to be a winner, she has taken those secrets into her own business entertaining thousands of people in a different way.

She is the founder of the AVA (Audio Visual Arts) Festival that began in Belfast five years ago and has already been emulated in London, and now Glasgow in her sights.

It's been an impressive journey so far for the passionate, driven and enthusiastic 30-year-old, who bristles with excitement as she reels off her plans for her event.

"Where AVA is at is it's really starting to come into its ambition," she says.

"It's a festival and conference and the ambition was always to be able to produce a creative platform for electronic music and digital visual arts, but an ambition way beyond Belfast.

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"The ambition was very much international. This will be our fifth year in Belfast and we've already been in London for two years at the Printworks, which is one of the exciting venues in London now, selling out 5,000 tickets.

"I guess what I would like to emphasise is that it came from a place where I knew there was a lot of very exciting creative talent in both electronic music and the visual arts side.

"And I wanted to create something that brought those two together and that showcased a lot of emerging talent as well as established talent.

"So it's a very grassroots festival in the sense that it was started by people in Belfast with artists from Belfast.

"We still very much work with the most exciting emerging talent and when we're booking the festival we don't just book big names which sell tickets.

"We very much spend year-round looking and seeing who are the exciting artists, who do we want to work with, who do we think are really going to be making big waves."

A visit to Glastonbury when she was a teenager sowed the seeds of her own festival dreams but it was fostered by her experiences too when she studied international management at Manchester University and worked at events like the Manchester International Festival.

"I went to Glastonbury for the first time when I was 18 and I came away completely moved by the experience and it really dug deep," she reveals.

"I'm the kind of person who wants to work in my passion rather than anywhere else.

"So I was quite willing to make a lot of sacrifices in order to do that - and I did, I made lot of sacrifices, financially and everything else in order to be able to do it."

After volunteering for work experience as well as visiting festivals as a fan, then came a learning curve at serial winners Manchester City that would copper-fasten Sarah's credentials and give her the confidence to go and launch her own enterprise and handle the pressures that come with hosting big events.

"I think that's where my training at Man City taught me how to cope with that," she says.

"I had an amazing boss at Man City called Jon Stemp who I still have a relationship with.

"He was a really good mentor as well as a really good boss. He taught me a lot and taught me how to manage.

"He's an amazing guy and I enjoyed working with him.

"I think what he taught me was the backbone - the key pieces you had to have in place and the rest then can follow."

Sarah worked at City from 2010 until 2016, and soon after she joined, the team lifted the same trophy as they did at the weekend - the FA Cup - to kickstart the current era of success.

Four Premier League titles and four League Cups followed before that second FA Cup and an unprecedented treble.

She went from assisting her mentor Jon, who was the chief of development, to being appointed as a project manager and honing the organisational skills that would help her launch AVA while still in her last two years at the club and working on it part-time.

"I definitely had to pinch myself a lot when I was there, it was an incredible job and I loved it," she says.

"I worked with amazing people, incredible people, probably some of the best in their game.

"At that point Manchester City was employing people from around the world to come and work at the club, and not just on the football side of things with the manager at the time, Roberto Mancini.

"I remember we were working with people from Disney, we were working with people from Nike. We were working with the best architects in the world because they were developing the new training facilities.

"I think it's one of things that because I was fresh out of uni I didn't quite grasp the gravitas of what we were doing but I remember thinking, 'I'm working with some of the best people in their industry'.

"So I was there during that period, going from a club that hadn't won the FA Cup in 42 years, and I remember being in the boardroom and I was quickly put in a role where I got the opportunity to tour the FA Cup around the world.

"We were talking about bringing it to 'x' amount of supporters clubs around the world and I said, 'Well, we have to bring it around Ireland, north and south'.

"That wasn't initially their main goal but I made that happen, I wanted that to happen. So I managed to convince the senior management of Man City to let me take it on a bus with Patrick Vieira and Paul Lake."

She believes it was fate when she was granted the necessary funding to get her AVA Festival off the ground - and received the email bearing the good news on a return visit to Glastonbury.

"That was a sign and I absolutely genuinely mean that it felt like a 360," she admits.

"When you've been somewhere and it's probably one of the reasons why you go in that direction, and then you find out that your first piece of funding which essentially starts everything while you are there, you are stood in a field, it was kinda like 'wow'.

"I do believe that what you put out there comes back. If you put positive energy and good things out there then good things come back, 100%."

Household names like David Holmes have been involved with the festival but for Sarah it is also about discovering and developing new artists.

She says: "There is a lot of emerging talent here but also a lot of untapped potential as well. I think the exciting thing about Belfast is it's really starting to gain momentum and gain a lot more recognition as well.

"We run a conference for free, so there's a big educational and development piece of AVA and that's been core from the beginning.

"And then we also do a broadcasted stage, so we have Boiler Room whose views up to now have been 12 million. Last year we broadcasted to one million viewers live across two days.

"Off the back of that, one of the artists, Or:la from Derry, she has had over a million views just for her one set at AVA and her career has very much grown a lot since that performance.

"Our core ethos is that of an audio-visual arts festival and conference that celebrates, advises and develops electronic music and digital visual arts.

"And that's working with people from the beginning all the way to the more top end, and ultimately we want to be behind creating new work, creating new projects - that's what excites us.

"We're not a commercially focused festival, that's not what drives us. What drives us in the creativity, what drives us is the experience, what drives us is what we create from the experience of a live event."

This year's AVA festival runs from May 30-June 2 and acts include German techno star Len Faki and American DJ Honey Djion. For more information visit https://avafestival.com

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