Gap Year Travels: Art & Community Development in Troubled City of Belfast

[This is the fourth of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

“Why would you want to go to Belfast?” my family members in Northern Ireland asked, adding, “watch where you go, I would stay close to the University area.”

I had visited my family in Northern Ireland twice before but never spent any time in the city to which they’ve traveled for errands, business and doctor visits throughout their lives — a city painfully pockmarked by the period of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. “Well, there HAS been a lot of redevelopment and cleanup the last few years,” my Aunt conceded.

The first thing I noticed about Belfast–home of C.S. Lewis, Van Morrison and the band Snow Patrol–was the architecture. The downtown area is a delightful mixture of Edwardian classics (see the regal City Hall) and eclectic, sometimes even funky, contemporary additions. Oh, and the public art scattered throughout the Cathedral Quarter, Queens University, the Titanic Quarter and divided residential areas is oh so generously cataloged in the City Council’s excellent Public Art Directory! Yes, the ill-fated RMS Titanic was built in the impressive Belfast dock yards, now presided over by the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes.

I was even more struck by the number of arts and cultural organizations we saw — virtually one on every corner! In particular, we saw a number of community arts organizations, those dynamic and creative organizations which engage members of the community in arts participation and projects that promote healing and positive engagement. For instance, the Re-imaging Communities Project, which endeavors to replace divisive sectarian murals infamous to Belfast with positive images of heritage and community interaction, is a compelling example of a community arts project tailored to engender positive change in a community plagued by a specific problem.

The city has undergone extensive urban regeneration and redevelopment since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought peace to the troubled city. It seems that the community and governing bodies have embraced arts and culture as a critical element of community development and revitalization. The result is a thriving city with relative peace and a vital, extensive cultural scene enriching the lives of locals and driving one of the hottest tourist destinations in Europe. This is in part I’m sure due to the partnerships among governmental and cultural organizations, as seen in the development of an Integrated Cultural Strategy in partnership between the City, the City Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

In fact, we just missed the Belfast Film Festival, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and completion of the largest piece of public art commissioned in Northern Ireland, a sculpture entitled RISE. (See below an extensive list of arts organizations and venues we stumbled across while visiting.) Local cultural institutions include the award-winning Crescent Arts Center, oh yeah Music Center and Grand Opera House.

For an extensive look at development of the arts scene and community arts in Belfast beginning in the 1970’s, check out the Northern Visions (a nonprofit access channel) documentary, In Our Time: Creating Arts Within Reach:

Also, see more pictures of our travels through Belfast and Northern Ireland here.

Below is a list of all the arts and cultural organizations and venues we stumbled upon in Belfast:

New Belfast Community Arts Initiative

Community Arts Forum

Arts Council of Northern Ireland

Black Box Belfast

Oh Yeah Belfast

Crescent Arts Center

Queens Film Theatre

Publishing NI

Catalyst Arts

Belfast Film Festival

AU Magazine

The Metropolitan Arts Center (Opening 2012)

Belfast Waterfront

Belfast Print Workshop

Grand Opera House

WheelWorks

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