Colette Fahy shares her thoughts as an arts marketer new to Northern Ireland’s geographical, cultural, and political landscapes.

This year’s Arts Marketing Association conference saw attendees from all over the UK cultural sector gather in Belfast Waterfront. I joined Audiences NI two months ago, moving from Dublin to Belfast for the role. Over the two days, I discovered some of the advantages Northern Ireland has when it comes to getting people engaged with culture. The small size and unique political landscape of Northern Ireland creates an opportunity for culture to be highly relevant to people’s lives.

Grappling with the big issues

‘Culture in a Polarised World’ was presented by Tony Butler of Derby Museums. He argued that cultural spaces and institutions have a pivotal role to play in dealing with divisive issues. Libraries and museums are one of the arguably few public institutions that inspire high levels of trust from the public, and theatre companies and artists can respond quickly to issues of the day.

Of course, in publicly funded institutions, taking a particular political viewpoint is not always appropriate, and it can risk alienating some of your audiences. But Tony and attendees at the talk gave examples of how dealing with sensitive issues can be a way to make your organisation more relevant to your audiences, rather than excluding them.

My Country: A Work in Progress’ , a recent play by Carol Ann Duffy, was mentioned as an example of cultural engagement with hot topic issues – in this case, Brexit. The work emerged from a series of interviews with people right across the UK in the days following the vote. The play brought new voices into the Brexit debate, and shone a light on the complexities of the vote, in a way which news coverage can often fail to do.
The Ulster Museum project ‘Collecting the Troubles and Beyond’ was also highlighted. This project collaborates with the public to collect objects, information, and stories which widen the scope of their exhibitions on partition and the Troubles. This work shows how public engagement can be seen as a positive rather than a risk when dealing with contested and sensitive histories.

‘Everything is Local’

There was a theme running across the two days about engaging in local communities and making sure that our organisations reflect the people they are designed to serve.

Melissa McMinn presented the Mac’s ‘MACtile Tours‘ program. This program reaches out to schoolchildren with Autism Spectrum Disorders, to prepare them for a visit to the MAC’s Christmas panto.  When asked how the MAC staff got access to schools to roll out the program, Melissa explained that their staff literally drove to local schools and knocked on doors.

I took to google maps and figured it is around 3 hours by car from the most easterly to the most westerly settled points of Northern Ireland (Belleek to Portavogie, if you feel like a weekend drive). There is a real sense here of the country being local, with connections already in place. In a coffee-break conversation at the conference, I was chatting to two NI ex-pats, now working in mainland UK. The topic of Liam Neeson came up. “Do you know him?”. And the reply; “No, but I know Liam’s mum.”

There is huge potential here for increasing collaboration and engagement, be that between venues in Derry and Belfast, or by smaller organisations doing some research into their local audience profile. As for myself, I’ve resolved to get on the road and start visiting more venues and people across the country.

Colette Fahy – communications executive

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