1st May 2020 in Arts
Rachael Campbell-Palmer is the Director of one of the Cathedral Quarter’s best known and longest standing arts venues.
Small but perfectly formed, the Black Box has consistently punched above its weight throughout its 14 years on Hill Street. As it gets ready for a slightly different birthday celebration than planned, we meet the person at the helm of this mighty little ship.
‘Director’ is a small word for a very broad role, according to Rachael, who says she has a “hands on” approach to the variety of day-to-day tasks involved in running one of Belfast’s most popular venues.
Rachael says: “Primarily, my role involves running the organisation and managing staff and volunteers. We have a great staff team here and everyone’s really invested, committed and passionate about what we do. There’s myself, an operations manager, an admin and comms person, an outreach and inclusion officer and the bar manager and venue staff team.
“In the broadest sense, there’s a team of around 15 people working in The Black Box. A lot of our venue staff are also writers, artists, actors and are trying to make income and support themselves to be creative practitioners. We like to support that as best we can.”
The Black Box is well known as part of Belfast buzzing cultural scene, hosting a huge range of gigs and events over the years. It actually began life as a temporary arts venue in 2006, intended to ‘bridge the gap’ in the provision of small to medium sized venues.
“It was set up to support festivals – before, festivals were working in temporary marquees and there was no permanent home for events to take place,” says Rachael.
The rest is history; as we all know, the CQ’s cultural landscape would not be the same without – and arguably was built upon – The Black Box’s tenacity in carving a unique platform for innovative, grassroots and alternative work in the arts.
It’s somewhere you can always have a great night out, but there’s much more to it than just being a club or a nightspot. Outreach, inclusion and community arts are part of the beating heart of the organisation, which is why much of Rachael’s work involves securing and maintaining funding streams.
She explains: “A lot of my work involves applying for funding and maintaining relationships with existing funders – for example, we are clients of the Arts Council NI and Belfast City Council. I’m also building new relationships with funders all the time.
“We deliver lots of different projects, including a lot of projects for and by people with learning disabilities, and work with funders to deliver specific projects. Children In Need supports our Mini Moon disco for children with disabilities, and we work with the Halifax Foundation who support our Black Box DJ Academy which takes place in the summer. Big Lottery has also supported our work with older people.”
The Black Moon disco is a club night for and by people with learning disabilities and usually happens on the first Tuesday of every month. Creating Connections is their programme supporting older people with learning disabilities which led to the creation of the Moon Base pop-up space. Read more about these amazing projects and more here.
Accessibility and inclusion have been part of the Black Box ethos since its inception, and they are values which continue to be instilled, through regular training, as well as nurturing a culture centred around mindfulness of the experience of all of the venue’s visitors.
This approach is probably a big reason for the universal affection for the venue. People feel at home here.
“One of the unique things about The Black Box is that it’s quite a casual space,” says Rachael, “That’s not to say it’s not professional, but it’s not a ‘formal’ arts space, people feel relaxed. It feels familiar; it doesn’t feel intimidating. If people are engaging with the arts for the first time, it feels safe to do it somewhere like The Black Box. People feel comfortable and that this is a space for them. If people feel comfortable, they will be more open to new things.”
Rachael is also responsible for pulling together the eclectic programming for which The Black Box is so well known.
“Annually we’re delivering over 700 events – that can range from talks and workshops to training sessions, live comedy, film, theatre, performance art – a whole spectrum of things that appeal to different audiences.
“We deliver our programme through partnerships that we have. We have 27 festival partners and that relationship is core to what The Black Box does and indeed where it came from as well.
“We work with freelance and independent promoters and directly with artists, musicians and performers who are looking for a small to medium sized venue to hire to deliver a successful and affordable event.”
“Finally, we programme our own Black Box events, so that might include our outreach projects and then also different live music events and comedy events throughout the year. For those we like to get across what is uniquely ‘Black Box’. So we’re looking for shows that are interesting, alternative, niche – things that might not get the chance to happen in Belfast if it wasn’t for a space like this.”
Rachael also oversees the organisation’s revenue streams, working closely with the operations team and liaises regularly with its 7-strong volunteer Board of Trustees.
Finally, she says an important part of her job in supporting the venue is “building connections”.
She continues: “The Black Box is a real centre, not just for arts-based and community-based activity, but also for other people to connect. We have wide-reaching networks and then people who use the venue are creating their own networks, so we’re always looking at ways we can expand our partnerships, work with new people and indeed support other people we’re not currently reaching.”
“It’s such a vibrant and important space. You have days where you’re busy, swamped with paperwork, but then you come down into the venue and all this amazing, exciting stuff is happening and it feeds you. It drives a lot of us working here.”
Like most of her staff team, Rachael comes from a creative background, having previously worked in visual arts.
“I did a degree and Masters in fine art working in sculpture and installation here at the Belfast School of Art. From an early age I wanted to be an artist. I’ve also always loved music and love going to gigs and would travel to see bands. After I studied, I was working in community arts, facilitating and managing projects and events as an artist, working with different groups as well as continuing my own practice.
She worked with New Belfast, now known as the Community Arts Partnership, as well as Wheelworks and then went to live and work in Glasgow, working in the Glasgow School of Art, helping to run arts programmes for young people.
On moving back to Belfast, Rachael worked in project management and admin roles for organisations including Brook Advisory, before relocating to Canada for a number of years working in the creative industries.
When she finally settled back in Belfast again, Rachael got a job in The Black Box and became one of the voluntary directors of Platform Arts, which she had been involved in setting up.
“That involved running the organisation as part of a team of volunteers, working in a group of 6 or 7 people, programming the gallery, connecting with artists and collectives, managing the studio spaces and delivering training and workshops.
“It was a lot of work but it was brilliant and we were all really proud of what we achieved. Thanks to the work of all the voluntary Board of Directors, Platform became an important fixture in the Belfast visual art landscape.”
The Black Box job provided some much-needed income, and Rachael started off working behind the bar, eventually becoming duty manager but also delivering community arts work. The opportunity came up to apply for the job of Director when a maternity cover position came up in 2016, which she successfully applied for.
“It brought together all the experience, passions and interests I had through managing community arts projects, events and programmes, running an arts organisation like Platform, and then knowledge of the arts and cultural landscape, and a passion for it.”
“It’s always in the forefront of my mind, to give space and opportunity to try and experiment and incubate, and try things out. Working as an artist, that’s very much part of the process, you’re looking for new ways of communicating with audiences, ways of creating work and new approaches and giving a space for that is so important.
“So, I am definitely a fan of the weirdest and most experimental stuff that goes on here! You need to challenge people. I love it when we’re able to take a bit of creative risk.”
The Black Box has certainly embraced the challenging circumstances it currently finds itself in. Although it is unable to act as a venue in the traditional sense, it is exploring new ways to bring audiences together and provide space for creativity.
It is continuing to support its Women Carers and Moon Base projects online via regular Zoom meet-ups between participants. The Moon Base and Black Moon Facebook pages are updated nearly every day with details on what the groups are doing, and with helpful resources and fun activities for their audiences while lockdown continues.
As we publish, The Black Box is preparing to celebrate its fourteenth birthday with a digital party rather than the in-person shindigs which went down so well for its thirteenth birthday festivities – which of course, went on for several months. You only become a teenager once, after all!
“We had a fun fundraising campaign around becoming a teenager and entering adolescence. We had a lot of fun with that, playing with the analogy of being a teenager.”
‘Help fix up our stroppy teen’ was the tongue-in-cheek tagline, with punters encouraged to come down for a series of Green Room takeover nights hosted by various friends of The Black Box. They took over the Green Room for a night, picking the entertainment, designing their own toastie for the menu, participating in a Q & A hosted by Rachael, and then putting in a shift behind the bar.
“We involved many of our neighbours because we very much feel like we’ve got great relationships with them, it’s a great community in the Cathedral Quarter. Bill Harris from Bill Harris hairdressing did a psychedelic 70s disco which was brilliant, complete with ‘glam and cheese’ toastie full of edible glitter!”
The 14th birthday party is described as “a very Black Box evening of music, art and performance coming straight to your living room”. Viewable online, with details to be released on the day of how to tune in, the fun starts at 9pm and Rachael herself is getting involved, performing with friend and long-time creative collaborator, Clodagh Lavelle. The details are top secret, but we’re told cushions, cardboard and raw wit and intellect are key ingredients, so we’re sold.
Make sure you’re following the event to get all the details.
The Black Box is taking part in the Music Venue Trust nationwide #SaveOurVenues campaign and we would urge our readers to support it. Grassroots venues like The Black Box are what our cultural life is made of, so please join this effort to safeguard and protect this important place.