30th Apr 2019 in Arts

CQAF Director Sean Kelly gives a potted history of the Cathedral Quarter’s eponymous festival, shares some key highlights, and tells us why Belfast could be an arts “powerhouse” if it wasn’t in the grip of a funding crisis.

There has been a Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival for nearly as long as there has been a Cathedral Quarter, and Festival Director Sean Kelly has been there right from the beginning.

He programmed the very first CQAF in 1999, when Northern Ireland was entering an era of optimism after the signing of The Good Friday Agreement the previous year. Having left a teaching career some two years earlier, he had just moved back to Belfast after working in the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry, and was working in arts administration.

At the time, the only two established arts festivals in the city were Feile An Phobail in West Belfast, and what was then the Belfast Festival at Queens (now the Belfast International Arts Festival). Sean and his contemporaries felt the Belfast Festival, as well as being based mostly in South Belfast, focused solely on “high art”, aimed only at middle-aged, middle class audiences. “All the things I now am myself!” Sean jokes.

They also felt that, in this new time of relative peace, there was “an appetite to get people back in to the city centre and it was kind of dead after 5pm. Donegall Street was completely desolate and we felt there was a new mood around and something had to be done to attract people into the city centre in the evenings.”

This mood coincided with a conversation between playwright Martin Lynch and the Laganside Corporation – a non-departmental public body which was tasked with regenerating areas along the riverside and in the north of the city between 1989 and 2007.

The organisation was “keen to fund arts and cultural events in the area” so Martin passed this information on to Sean who created a proposal of “what a new arts festival in the city centre might look like”.

“At the time there was very little arts infrastructure in the city centre,” explains Sean, “there was no MAC, there was no Black Box or Oh Yeah Centre. I had to become quite creative about using spaces in the area; for the first festival we had to take theatre out of theatres and visual art out of art galleries.”

This idea of bringing art to the people; of removing barriers by bringing theatre and poetry and music out into everyday, familiar spaces and showing that art and culture is something we can all appreciate and enjoy, is something we’re lucky enough to be fairly familiar with now in Belfast – Festival of Fools and Culture Night are just two shining examples that continue to bring art onto streets and into non-traditional arenas every year.

“People really responded to that fringe or alternative kind of ethos. They enjoyed the informal venues, being able to have a drink while they watched a show, and enjoy a different experience from the traditional way of going to a theatre. We just wanted to remove the barriers around the arts, and so most were either free or as inexpensive as possible.”

The people were clearly ready for it – from ‘Folk on a Boat’ to performances in disused buildings, 5,000 people attended the first CQAF, convincing the festival team to make it an annual occurrence.

Fast forward 20 years to the Cathedral Quarter we know and love today and it’s arguable that the festival (which now draws in 30,000 people!) has helped to shape the CQ into the vibrant social and creative hub it is today.

“I think we helped play a role in reimagining that part of the city, and change the perception of that part of the city, which was a fairly run down and derelict corner of Belfast. We planted the idea in people’s minds that there was a very lively arts and cultural scene that was a bit beyond the mainstream.”

Modern redevelopment of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter continues to divide opinion, and Sean believes there must be a meaningful place for the arts in future plans for the area.

“It’s a very common story these days; artists have led the regeneration of parts of cities, and the gentrification of cities, and then eventually developers come in, rent goes up and arts organisations often ultimately have to move out. And Belfast has experienced that to some degree; it seems like every few weeks there is news of a new restaurant or bar in the Cathedral Quarter but we don’t see a similar number of arts organisations or venues opening.

“So, the balance is changing and I think there’s a danger that we will lose something of what helped create the Cathedral Quarter in the first place. I think we need to support arts organisations and venues like the Black Box. And to some extent, the [Cathedral Quarter] BID are part of that process and are providing some of that support. But we need to make sure investment in the arts in the area continues.”

This call comes in the shadow of what Sean describes as a “funding crisis” for the arts in Northern Ireland. He says he is “deeply worried about the sustainability of arts infrastructure” with Arts Council NI’s funding budget lower today than it was in 2011.

“Overall, Northern Ireland arts funding is the lowest per capita in the UK.” says Sean. With no devolved government, the sector is “voiceless”, facing UK austerity measures with no minister to lobby on their behalf.

“We always have been a lean organisation and we’re managing to navigate our way through this funding crisis but it’s been a tough few years and I wish arts funding could go back on to the agenda.”

Sean is frustrated that politicians seem unable to grasp that the arts act as an “economic driver”, supporting jobs in tourism and hospitality as well as in arts, not to mention the wider social and mental health benefits.

“Belfast could be a cultural powerhouse. Blue chip companies want to locate where there is a great arts infrastructure for their workforce, so I would urge anyone with influence to look seriously at the damage being done to the arts.”

“The only way arts organisations are surviving is by driving tickets sales and taking fewer artistic risks in some sense.
“We always want to push boundaries in terms of this festival, but increasingly our box office has become such a large part of our turnover that I can’t afford to have too many events where the audience is small. So I have to focus on popular art forms like music and comedy and look towards more mainstream acts.”

That said, this year’s festival is as far from safe and beige as it has ever been! Three of its events in the Words and Ideas categories have sold out already. The music headliners are eclectic – Echo and The Bunnymen, Anna Calvi, Spiritualized, Rufus Wainwright, Teenage Fanclub – but all are acts who have consistently marched to the beat of their own creative drum.

As always, giving a platform to local talent remains a key priority and DANI is this year’s artist in residence, performing at the festival’s quirky opening event, the CQ Bazaar in Belfast Cathedral. Kitt Philippa, Alice McCullough, Kevin McAleer and even the mighty Roy Walker are just some of the homegrown acts gracing CQAF stages over the next ten days.

Artists, bands and shows have been sourced from right across the globe. American rapper Sneaks and South Korean Indie band Say Sue Me are two of Sean’s many recommendations for the festival. The former plays The Sunflower with the latter taking the stage in the Basement of McHugh’s Bar and it’s intimate, unusual venues like this where that old ‘Year 2000’ soul of CQAF still really sparkles.

He’s also excited to see CQ Radio return to the festival this year, and we will be looking at this in more depth in an article to follow, along with the other exciting special events. Stay tuned for more (see what we did there?) but for now, you can check it out here.


The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival begins this Thursday 2nd May – check out cqaf.com for the full programme and to get tickets.

Don’t forget to follow Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as Cathedral Quarter Belfast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Tag us both in your festival posts and Stories and use the #CQAF19 and #CQBelfast hashtags.

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