So, I have to be honest. I’m not the biggest fan of Culture Night. It’s not Belfast. It’s me. I’m a quietish sort of person who tends to like their art reserved and introspective; ideally whilst sitting on a comfortable chair. Culture Night has always been a bit of a stretch for me. It’s noisy. It’s spontaneous. It’s so packed to the gills with people that the average Belfast resident will struggle to make it from one end of the Cathedral Quarter to the other without encountering around half a million familiar faces. There are drums and fire jugglers and sometimes I feel a little like everything is happening all at once, right in my face. Culture Night has always been a shock to my measured little soul, and yet it’s a shock I’ve come to value and look forward to every September. Adam and the team behind Culture Night have done such an amazing job of pushing our city to the absolute limits of its creative potential and showcasing not only some of the best artist and cultural organisations who operate in Belfast, but also highlighting Belfast people as the most warm, imaginative and enthusiastic folk in the world. Culture Night is a celebration of all that is best about our city. It’s been incredible to watch it grow and develop across the last few years, to programme events and get the most out of the evening, albeit usually the quieter corners.
Last night I wasn’t at Culture Night for the first time in as long as I can remember. I was in Vancouver, Canada eating some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had, awkwardly, with chopsticks, (it was the kind of restaurant where you had to wonder if forks were even available on the premises and how much dumpling you’d have to drop on the floor before it outweighed the shame of asking for something as philistine as a fork). It was a great night. The food was immense, the conversation even better. And yet as I ate, and ate, and continued to eat until we actually closed down the restaurant, my heart wasn’t in Vancouver. It was in Belfast with the thousands of people swarming round the city centre.
I’ve been on the road for almost three weeks now. I’ve met some amazing people; some fantastic artists and creative thinkers; a collection of the most hospitable people in North America; but I’ve yet to meet a community of artists whom I love and admire as much as the good folks of Belfast. Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt and yet after almost five years programming and creating in Belfast I am just as inspired, enthused and graciously supported by the people who keep our arts and cultural sector trundling along, as I was when I first arrived back in the city.
Belfast’s not perfect of course. We’ve a long road ahead of us if our artists and arts programme is to reach its full potential and become sustainable. I’d love to see Belfast synonymous worldwide with good art and imaginative thinking rather than some of the more negative attributes we’ve been known for in the past and whilst we’re definitely moving forwards rather than backwards in this arena, there’s much hard, hard work to be done. Money is tight, resources are stretched, prevailing attitudes towards the arts can often seem like they’ve become lodged firmly somewhere in the early 60s. It would be easy to give up or give in to crass cynicism and yet, every September, during Culture Night, I’m reminded of just how far we’ve come in such a short time. The little part of me that has become worn down by all the red tape and those infuriating naysayers who circle round the edge of our community is invigorated, enthused, given a timely kick up the backside. Good things are happening in Belfast and there are more good things to come.
So, I’m missing Culture Night tonight and this makes me a little homesick. But on the other side of the world I am quietly proud of everyone who turned out and made magic happen on our streets and in our venues. And, as I travel around America, I am preaching the good gospel of our artists, our cultural organisations, our imagineers and enthusiastic attenders who are pushing, dragging, coercing and carrying Belfast, bravely into its next season. Well done all, keep the good work going and maybe tonight put your feet up, have a glass of wine and enjoy a well-deserved rest.
(*this is my sad, missing Culture Night face. Am also sad because it’s raining in Vancouver and I hear the weather is actually glorious in the homeland).