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Festival of arts will take our city to fringe of greatness

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said in a recent interview that he felt the next big digital innovation or invention wouldn't necessarily happen in Silicon Valley.

Why? "Silicon Valley is, frankly, a dull place to live." Jimmy Wales, like many students, visitors, investors, skilled workers, entrepreneurs and businessmen, is looking for places that have a rich cultural life, great museums and galleries and a stimulating atmosphere.

For a city like Belfast, its festivals not only reflect its cultural identity, they create and stimulate an atmosphere which contributes to making the city an exciting place to live. Festivals give us an opportunity to come together and share experiences. They are celebrations. If you look at the world's established arts and culture festivals - Melbourne, Aix, Edinburgh Fringe and, of course, the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's - you find that they have all played a role in the story and development of their city.

This role is not only a cultural one, but that of economics and social development. There is hard economic data that proves this - ticket sales, tourism spend and jobs. But over a long period of time, festivals also influence spatial and architectural planning, perception change, business investment, urban regeneration and social change. Don't believe me?

Ask what Edinburgh's international profile would be like without its festival and fringe. Would Venice have sunk without the huge cash injection of its Biennale?

And what about the huge increase in tourism engendered by the Marrakech Film Festival?

Festivals can be catalysts of change - an important promotion and lobbying platform. They are also, of course, about the art. So what constitutes a good arts festival?

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A successful one should offer its audiences a mix of the must-see, the new and the inspiring. It should provide well-known faces interspersed with stars of tomorrow.

A city during festival time should have a different atmosphere, a tangible sense of excitement. A festival that shuns promoting homegrown talent alongside best-in-class international artists does so at its peril.

Go and see Dervish on October 14 and then sample Anna Moura on October 29 and you'll see two groups of musicians whose work comes from a wellspring of music traditions of Northern Ireland and Portugal respectively.

This year's festival, by presenting both artists in the same programme, allows for the comparison and contrast of these two schools.

Guidelines for a Long and Happy Life, Request Programme and The Boat Factory create thrilling encounters in Belfast spaces - a warehouse, a flat and the Belfast Harbour Office.

Handspring - the genius puppet company behind the National Theatre hit (and soon to be Spielberg film) Warhorse - take Georg Buchner's chilling play Woyzeck and give it a South African context.

Some may wonder at being transported to South Africa via a classic German text, but equally you could simply marvel at the extraordinary puppets; their humanity and grace.

Finally, I understand that Hamlet in Lithuanian may sound daunting, but I urge you to try - not least because for once not concentrating on the spoken text may mean you get closer to the emotions drawn out by Oskaras Korsunovas' remarkable production.

I'm so pleased that our Community Ticket Scheme and a Night For Belfast, both supported by Ulster Bank, mean that we can provide 1,600 tickets to community groups and registered charities.

I really hope you find something of interest in this year's programme. I'd love to persuade you to try something you're not familiar with. We want to surprise and delight you. Surely that's something we can all celebrate?

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