Belfast International Arts Festival director says challenges of pandemic inspired creatives
The 2020 Belfast International Arts Festival concluded on Sunday 1 November after three weeks of online programming celebrating the very best in contemporary arts and culture from these islands and internationally – and it attracted a “truly international” audience, its director Richard Wakely says.
“Our audiences are traditionally from the UK and Ireland,” Richard says, “but this year the reach was truly international.”
Early insights show people tuned into the festival from North and Latin America, throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and as far as Australia.
“We are Belfast International Arts Festival for many reasons,” he explains. “We act as a platform to attract the very best international works to these shores, but we also advocate for, support, and nurture emerging talent from Northern Ireland – one of our greatest exports – to go out into international circuits and showcase homegrown innovation and creativity.”
The challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic, he says, ignited many creatives in the industry whose works were featured in the three-week showcase.
“Our homegrown talent is continuing to make waves in the industry, leading the charge in many different creative arenas and pushing the boundaries of what is possible through technology.
“Digital theatre and storytelling by local companies Cahoots NI and Big Telly Theatre Company exemplified the levels of ingenuity, creativity, and technology that underpinned this year’s festival.
“We are also extremely proud of the many premieres we had the privilege to programme, including the world premieres of Call Nina! and Septet (for Four), and the UK and Ireland premieres of Singing Struggle and Agreement and If It Were Love (Si c’était de l’amour).”
The festival also programmed an extensive Talks & Ideas programme, featuring some of the most critically acclaimed writers, such as Jenny Offill, Sebastian Barry, Lennie Goodings, Daisy Johnson and more.
Though pleased with the international reach of the festival he maintains there is no substitute to the thrill of experiencing arts and culture in person and that this will be a major consideration for future festival programming.
“I believe a hybrid of live, in-person events and online events will be a strong feature in many festivals to come. There may still be some corners of our community that will be hesitant to attend physical events when we are able to come together once again, so a digital offering will be a major programming consideration going forward.”
Looking back on the past seven months, when the festival team set out to curate a compelling programme blending both live and in-person events, as well as those that would be presented online only, Richard reflected:
“With all of our events it was absolutely necessary for us to plan for all eventualities, and that included contingencies to quickly adapt events for the festival’s online platforms at short notice.
“We were hopeful,” he added, explaining that up until the festival officially opened in mid-October there was a selection of live, in-person events.
“Emerging public health advice meant we had to transition these events to an online-only format, but we were prepared for that and it enabled us to make festival events more accessible to an international audience than ever before.”
This year, the festival also maintained its commitment to artist developmental initiatives.
“Our artist in residence, dancer and choreographer Eileen McClory, will spend time at the prestigious CCN2 – Centre Chorégraphique National de Grenoble as part of her residency.”
She follows in the footsteps of other postholders such as Suzanne Lacy, Oona Doherty, Amanda Coogan and Leonie McDonagh.
Nóirín McKinney, Director of Arts Development, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commented: “October in Belfast has become synonymous with Belfast International Arts Festival. It is something we look forward to annually, celebrating the very best in local and international arts.
“Although this year may have been different from previous Festivals what it did have in common was that same driving ambition to bring audiences fresh content, new performances, exhibitions and ideas which would challenge, engage and delight. This year’s festival had that spirit in abundance and I know that many of us will already be anticipating what treasures might lie in store for 2021.”
Planning for the 2021 festival is already underway. In 2022 the festival will celebrate its 60th anniversary.
BIAF’s principal funder is the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and is also supported by Belfast City Council, Department for Communities, British Council, the Government of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Tourism NI and a range of project funders and sponsors, including Belfast Harbour.
To join Belfast International Arts Festival e-newsletter, visit belfastinternationalartsfestival.com.