With the increase in funding for the local arts, and with the vast increase in visitors flocking to the city, Belfast knows only too well the positive influence of the arts. But how has this happened? and where can you experience it yourself? Investigated by Naomi Dowling.
Back in 2012, Belfast City Council announced they would make a huge investment into the Arts, promising £150 million-pound contribution. It was the aspiration that, with the help of the local money and programming, by the year 2015 Northern Ireland would emerge as a city of vibrancy, passion, and talent.
“Some say putting local money into the arts is a waste, but without art you wouldn’t have the artistic enjoyment or the communal enjoyment that comes from this sector. Belfast has places that no other country can offer and its by time they were displayed.”, says Damian Smyth from the Arts Council Northern Ireland.
Now two years on from this goal, this positive progression oozes across the city. More people in Northern Ireland choose to interact with the arts than any other means of leisure combined, 80% to be exact, a vast growth from the 40% it used to be in the early 20th Century. This growth in interaction has thus contributed to the fact that, even with its dark past, Belfast has emerged as one of Europe’s most culturally celebrated destinations, for its history and artistic brilliance.
As a capital city, Belfast is best known for its political art, and it was during the 1970’s that many used murals to portray and express political feelings. However, the change from this heavy political influence to one of urban, colourful artisan cannot be denied. Hence, it will come as a surprise to many, that it is the art’s sector that has helped us to emerge from gloom to glory, in terms of educational, economic, and even political precedents. Hundreds of murals are scattered over the city expressing, not only political ideas but social opinions and peace, through expressions of love, food, and colour.
Smyth says, “Belfast is probably the most famous for its political murals, they are a territory marking, but in the 21st Century there has been a change in art, from heavy orthodox political influence over the last 10 years, to art becoming more open, more socially focused.”
It is this change in artistic vibes that have played a key role in the attractiveness of Belfast City to outsiders. Although, as Smyth points out, Belfast has grown from a dark demesne into greatness due to all art forms, be it film, music, dance. “All the art forms grow at the same time and the same speed in Belfast…and each have a tremendous effect…I think that is because Belfast is a very small geographical place with an intense artistic vibe, this puts pressure on artists to perform and they do not let us down.”
The beautiful aspect about this city is that each of these art forms has a place in the hearts of the community, the exhibitions, art festivals, markets, and visuals that surround Belfast, show the sheer stance of the love for this medium.
Moreover, ever since this surge in funding began, Belfast has also had an increased audience of 16 million coming from all walks, to not only see the art but partake in its creation. To emphasise the nature of this growth, I spoke with high-end Art’s Dealer Charles Gilmore, asking how he feels about the increase of the arts sector.
Listen to Charles Gilmore
This increase in audience for the arts is even more impressive when compared to its large competition against major cities such as London and Dublin. Local artist Emma Colbert, who regularly travels to and from Europe selling and creating her art agreed, declaring that Belfast is one of the best artistic cities she works in. “In comparison to a lot of Europe where I have been travelling to at the minute, Belfast is pretty great for its art. Even the variety of art shops and the number of galleries is a lot more than some of the major places in Europe.”
Colbert went on to emphasis the vital nature of the arts to the survival of this city. “Art will always have a place in society because of its positive impact. Creative people are a vital part of the mix, and their work has always shaped our perceptions…”
Essentially, it is because of this positive artistic growth that Belfast is now considered as a place of excellence to explore for its art culture, against places like London. The city is now set up as a place for alternative urban city breaks alongside the likes of Prague and Berlin.
But if “The visual arts occupy a way of life that only Belfast can bring”, as Smyth, and his fellow artisans believe, where, what and how can the traveller experience the arts? Let me tell you.
For any urban traveller coming to Belfast, the cities Cathedral Quarter is at the top of the list to discover. Mentioned by many other local travel writers, and a short walk away from Belfast City Hall, the Cathedral Quarter is the section of Belfast that gushes contemporary and traditional artistic vibes.
Upon walking into this area of the city you will be taken by the chic traditional architectural structures of the buildings, and the beautiful cobbled streets that would have felt the feet of the late Irish ancestors. Take a moment to look up at the tall steeple of St. Anne’s Cathedral, the magnificent detail, the painted fronts and the traditional arches of the pubs and shops.
Making your way further into the Cathedral Quarter you are hit with the alternative upbeat vibes that Belfast has to offer. Filled with quirky pub venues, try the Dirty Onion, or the Cloth Ear on a Thursday night to hear local bands, and quirky restaurants. However, what’s spectacular about this section of the city is the witty art that is used to decorate the surrounding alleys and walls.
As mentioned, murals have always been a famous part of Belfast culture. The murals are famous for holding much of the political history that went on during the 1970’s. However, there is also a vast amount of new and quirky murals that have made their way onto the walls. To fully appreciate their meaning and comparison against the heavy political, one can book a walking tour around the artistic quarter, where you can learn more about the reasons behind the pieces, and even offers you a worthy chance to use your expensive Canon camera.
A little further along the Cathedral Quarter, The Mac graces us, which is renowned for highlighting spectacular local and worldwide talent. Displaying a mixture of photography, film, abstract and fine art, The Mac is an exhibition center for contemporary art lovers, who want to divulge in a freshly roasted coffee afterward. It’s also a space where students from the neighboring Arts College set up laptop and pen to create their own artistic masterpiece, soaking in the vibes of the spectacular artistic inspiration surrounding them.
After enjoying the experiences of the Cathedral Quarter, tour back up towards the centre where, less than a 5-minute stroll away, lies the Ulster Hall. A stunning architectural building that has been at the basis of displaying the best musical talent in Northern Ireland for the past 150 years. This place has been graced with the likes of rock gods, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, U2, Coldplay, to one of Northern Irelands proudest achievements, The Ulster Orchestra, who perform, not only at the Ulster Hall but all around the UK each classical season. Just check out this performance from last season, you’ll be sure to recognise the piece and receive goose-bumps from the spectacular talent.
Why not have a look at the Ulster Hall website and plan your visit around a show of your choice? You will not leave disappointed. If you find yourself peckish after the show just step outside and you will be stuck for choice with the array of swanky bars and restaurants situated close to the building.
Although, no visit to Belfast would be complete without a trip to the Titanic Quarter. One of the world’s largest urban spaces, the Titanic Quarter covers a 185 acre on the exact spot where the RMS Titanic was built. Hosting a combination of art, history, education, and commercial spaces, excitement, and eye-catching detail surround this area.
The true essence can only be fully appreciated with a guided tour, which is worthy of both money and time. Led around the monument, exploring both the outside and inside of the quarter, the standpoint of the tour must be the virtual reality lift that takes you around the interior of the ship in a sophisticated Edwardian fashion. Next to this has to be the virtual standing screen, where visitors get to peer below their feet at the ocean depths to see the Titanic as she sits today.
To see these places, and more, play the short video below and witness the range of the experiences this city can offer you.