University axe spells end for Belfast Festival at Queen’s



Could this be the end of the road? Queen’s University calls time on the international arts festival that bears its name


It’s often said we live in a society that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Belfast Festival at Queen’s learned that lesson last week when its ‘parent’ pulled its funding.

It remains to be seen whether or not the other key partners – Arts Council, Belfast City Council, British Council, and Tourism Northern Ireland – will walk away too.

The festival can’t easily be kept going. It is not a separate entity; it is a university department.

Queen’s provided the staff, buildings, management systems, and it carried all the legal liabilities. The Festival director has gamely promised to fight on. But robbed of the protective mantle of Queen’s, the festival will die like an infant abandoned on a cold mountainside.

Like it or loathe it – and the festival has its critics – there can be little doubt that in its 50-plus years Belfast Festival at Queen’s has made a major contribution to the cultural life of Northern Ireland.

It has given audiences the chance to experience international artists at first hand. It helped Northern Ireland keep its dignity through the long years of the Troubles. And it changed people’s lives for the better – not only audiences, but the thousands of volunteers who made it work.

Festivals – particularly multi-disciplinary ones – are special because they are one-offs; bringing together a community of artists from different countries, genres and backgrounds to create something unique, never to be repeated.

That’s why audiences love them. They are events – special – and Belfast’s had its special moments.

The festival was important for Belfast, and it gave the university a point of difference. It was worth more to the Queen’s ‘brand’ than the university ever recognised. But Queen’s brought something to the festival too, credibility and a financial cushion other arts organisations would have died for. Whatever the size of the deficit – and the festival was rarely in surplus – there was never a cash flow issue.

In truth, Queen’s University’s direct financial contribution was never that large. The Arts Council, City Council, private sector businesses and box office provided income too. More recently the British Council and Tourism Northern Ireland have weighed in. But the university brought security. Even in today’s austere times, the university has deep pockets. The festival director always had the comfort of knowing that, if all else failed, the university would be the funder of last resort.

It was this factor that created the greatest anxiety in the university’s corridors of power – there was always the fear that the festival would go belly-up and Queen’s would be left to deal with the consequences. I understand that, with a six-figure hole in the budget for the 2015 event, and no one committing to help, Queen’s felt it had no alternative but to pull the plug.

It has long been the case that none of the other funders was prepared to share the risk – even though they shared the benefits.

Over the years there have been repeated attempts to establish the festival on a sustainable basis. None has succeeded. The most recent independent report, commissioned last year by the festival’s main funders, set out in stark terms the limitations of the current festival and proposed a five-year plan to get it back on its feet.

Critical was the need to shift the burden of funding from public sources to earned income – sponsorship, fundraising, box office, merchandising and so on. In the current climate, that would be a tall order.

It’s tempting to blame Queen’s for the festival’s demise. In a sense, with its decision last week, it’s been caught in the act. But in its defence, the university could justifiably claim the festival has been on life support for years. Turning off the power was more humane than letting it linger on.

In penning the festival’s obituary, it would only be fair to acknowledge that the university kept the festival alive during the years when it was most important to Northern Ireland: the lean years when the festival, the Ulster Orchestra (itself recently imperilled) and the Grand Opera House were the extent of Belfast’s grip of culture; the years when the Shadow of a Gunman was more often stalking the streets than playing in the Lyric.

It was an accident of history that the university ended up running a festival. Student Michael Emerson had an idea and ran with it, Michael Barnes (an old style academic) sustained the vision until he ran out of steam. Queen’s turned a benign eye on his regime. Universities embraced eccentricity in those days.

There have been a number of notable directors since. The mercurial Sean Doran rejuvenated it artistically, but at a price-tag that worried the university authorities. Robert Agnew brought a bit of stability. Stella Hall brought pageantry, street theatre and community engagement, but she wearied of the university (including me, I was her line manager). And Hall couldn’t comprehend why other funders did not buy into her vision. Graeme Farrow – now with millions to spend on culture at the Wales Millennium Centre – made silk purses out of sows’ ears; but he too was sapped by the bureaucracy that accompanies modern arts’ management.

Many universities are patrons of the arts. But today they are obsessed by pounds, shillings and pence. They have to be. We now expect them to operate like a poultry factory producing oven-ready chickens.

In a world of cutbacks, audits and accountability, there is no place any more in higher education for oddities like an international festival. That’s a sad fact of modern life.

When Sir George Bain was in charge at Queen’s, contribution to the community was one of the three key pillars of his strategy – education and research being the other two. The festival had its place and the subsidy could be justified.

Sir George was a renaissance vice-chancellor, and a patron of the arts. He knew the value of culture. But even during his time there were voices who believed the university had to get out of running an international festival. Those voices have now prevailed, the Northern Ireland Executive’s cuts in higher education funding have given them the reason they needed.

In recent years the festival had become a pale imitation of itself. Some of what it did is now done better by other festivals. It used to compare itself to Edinburgh – it doesn’t come near now, if it ever did. So what’s to be done?

While Queen’s operated as funder of last resort, there was no incentive for Belfast City Council or the Arts Council to do much. As a result Belfast has had an international festival on the cheap – but one insufficiently resourced to compete with city festivals like those in Manchester (with its £12 million budget), Brighton, Canterbury (led by Rosie Turner, formerly of Queen’s), and even Galway.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure – which has presided over the dismantling of the arts in Northern Ireland – says it is stony broke. Belfast City Council, in its current guise, is in its dying days. The Arts Council unleashed misery on countless organisations last week when they got notice of funding decisions.

None is in a strong position to breathe new life into a now dead festival. And they shouldn’t. To do so would be like nailing legs to a cadaver and telling it to walk.

The best course would be to give Belfast Festival at Queen’s a decent cremation – it deserves one. If a phoenix is to rise from its ashes, it will need commitment and a significant injection of money: millions, not thousands.

A genuinely international festival would help grow the economy and put Belfast firmly on the cultural tourism map. If that’s important enough, the money will be found. The fate of Belfast Festival suggests that the will just isn’t there.

  • This article first appeared in Scope NI on March 23 2015.