City of Culture:
We mean it literally
Two centuries ago Belfast's leading citizens declared that their
town was 'the modern Athens'. When in 1985 Athens won the first
contest to be official European City Capital of Culture, it was merely
following in our self-declared footsteps! There has been something of
the same over-weaning pride in our now failed bid to formally become City
Capital of Culture ourselves. Bookmakers placed us first, but Belfast
citizens, well versed in the unreliability of horses, were increasingly
unconvinced. In the end only Imagine Belfast and its immediate backers
were 'shocked' when the judges failed to shortlist us.
Let's be fair. Although the City of Culture contest is now down to
second ranking cities, Belfast had to leap enormous hurdles to get into
contention. Our brief eighteenth century 'Age of Enlightenment'
has long since vanished. It gave way to nineteenth and early twentieth
century expansion fueled by devotion to 'God and Mammon', a
period that still characterises the city's physical fabric
hence a city centre without a single building, save only the Linen Hall
Library, devoted to cultural purposes. While on the one hand we have long
been a byword for cultural conflict, there has been a consistent lack
of commitment or investment in the more positive possibilities of culture
and the arts. Much of the major infrastructure that any city requires,
if it is to take these things seriously, is simply missing.
And yet in some measure the potential was there. Stepping Stone: the Arts
in Ulster (Belfast, 2001) provided a useful survey of what was or what
was not going on in the major arts disciplines on the eve of the bid.
Poetry and drama were obvious strengths, but much was emerging elsewhere.
The revival of the city centre from the early 1980s onwards has provided
a toehold for a widening imaginative life, and an increasing range of
mould breaking groups, constrained only by the pitiful level of public
funding available to them.
Against this background, a Belfast bid, to have a chance of succeeding,
had to offer a radical and transforming agenda, and needed a favourable
following wind. The very title of the bid, 'One Belfast', implied
an ambition for overarching change, albeit one that no other city would
need to proclaim. The use on the title page of Tony Blair's phrase
catching the moment of the Good Friday Agreement, 'Where hope and
history rhyme', implied a bid building on the momentum of the agreement.
The most eye catching proposal was 'to live life without walls',
which was to involve nothing less than the removal of the peace-lines.
In the strange Belfast demotic developed for the bid, a kind of sub-Tom
Paulin patois, the judges were assured, 'we mean what we say. We
mean it literally. This is the City of Belfast shouting at you.'
They didn't mean it though: even in the bid document we were told
that a centre exploring the history of the Belfast conflict would be built
at Conway Street (between the Falls and Shankill), but the surrounding
peace line would remain in place. As those huddling under daily assault
behind peacelines voiced alarm, removal of peace lines became a vaguer
During the short history of the bid, events, and more events, conspired
to undermine one of its central thrusts. Executive crises were followed
by Executive collapse, and rising governmental instability triggered protracted
interface violence. How could we speak of 'One Belfast' while
Unionists refused to appoint a Deputy Mayor to serve under a Sinn Fein
Lord Mayor? The favourable wind that the bid needed had turned into an
adverse gale. On the morning of the bid's failure, as its advocates,
in a final indignity, were evicted from a coffee bar because of a bomb
scare, one prominent councillor blamed terrorists for the whole fiasco.
It was more certainly a failure of politics.
Yet the credit for making the attempt, and credit it still must be, lies
with Belfast City Council who initiated the idea. It is a pity that they
and other prospective funders were unwilling to entrust the development
of the bid to the creative forces already available in the cultural and
arts sector. Of the 25 Imagine Belfast board members only two had any
active connection with practice, and elsewhere the board was padded with
representatives of bodies such as the Tourist Board and the Northern Ireland
Events Company, bringing their own tarnished records with them.
In the event Imagine Belfast struggled with the crucial question asked
of them: 'What do you understand by culture.' Perhaps it is
an impossibly dangerous question in post cease-fire Belfast where culture
has been a major focus of 'war by any other means'. The bid
evaded definition, but proceeded by conflicting assertions. On the one
hand, culture was overarching, about every aspect of life as we live it,
and in particular a marker of 'citizenship', even if this was
'contentious as well as joyous'; and if you need to cherish
culture in this context then you need to 'renew and restore tradition,
custom and icon' this, an essentially conservative perspective
and one that does not challenge the emerging 'separate but equal'
model for cultural development that all too many espouse. On the other
hand they assured the judges that 'culture is for change', 'transformation',
and 'transfiguring' even if they were unable to explain exactly
And just where did the arts fit into this? An early press statement was
revealing: it spoke of 'recovering the whole city as a place of social,
cultural and communal commerce', and went on; 'upon that vision
depends every value that we might place on the arts themselves.'
Thus the arts were denied any significance or enabling potential in their
Certainly arts and cultural practitioners were consulted at an early stage,
but any sense of ownership was lost by the time the bid emerged, and in
a form that seemed merely bizarre to many. None would have disagreed with
the need to address the issue of conflict, but most would have advised
that the approach to the peace-lines issue was simply naive. Let us indeed
create new possibilities for children as in the bid theme 'Through
the eyes of a child', but why the heavy dependence on a new C.S.
Lewis based centre? True, he was born here but the world of Narnia and
its public school children does not obviously relate to the urban children
of our here and now. A third strand of the bid, 'Made in Belfast',
is a strange mixture offering 'Legendary Belfast', as though
we are an ancient and mythic city (which we are not), but in fact providing
prosaic enough routes into aspects of our history in a space age 2008
when we will not need the assistance of museums or libraries but, in a
nightmare vision of the future, will access ATM-like 'legend points'.
The Cathedral Quarter is at least a locale found in the real world, and
its future as a cultural quarter is a further sub-theme, albeit headed
by the cry, 'put the heart back into the city', and they mean
'the very centre', when it is anything but. In the event the
bid added little to existing and developer-led aspirations for the quarter.
And still we held our peace, and hoped that perhaps we had read the wrong
pages, and that if Belfast was shortlisted there would be a chance to
change the agenda. We had not allowed for the capacity of the main promoters
of the bid to catastrophically damage the chances of what was their own
venture. Apart from the formal visits of the judges, we may be sure that
they had their ears to the ground in other ways. How was the bid gelling?
They would not have had to listen too hard to hear the roars of anguish
at a series of own goals. In January 2000 the Northern Ireland Arts Council's
refusal of regeneration funding for the Grand Opera House, the Old Museum
Arts Centre, and the Crescent Centre offered depressing evidence of the
lack of available funding for critical infrastructure. Much worse was
Just as the bid was launched, Belfast's arts organisations discovered,
via the City Council website, that they were going to suffer a 20% cut
in core funding with immediate effect. The funds were still available
but only via a new outreach approach working with partners in deprived
inner city areas, and through mechanisms which are still unexplained.
The immediate loss of direct funding plunged the entire sector into crisis
and public protest, which was also backed by many of our expatriate luminaries
who had already lent their names to the City of Culture bid. Apart from
the immediate dislocation, there was growing concern that the new policy
threatened a tribalisation of arts provision in the city, with single
identity communities and councillors picking the arts they wanted. The
'One Belfast' slogan of the City of Culture bid was being by-passed
with disastrous effect.
And now that we have lost, how do we pick up the pieces? The immediate
reaction of those involved in Imagine Belfast that they had got
it right and the judges had got it wrong is hardly encouraging.
It is as though the captain of the Titanic, having hit the iceberg, ordered
full steam ahead. The failure even to be shortlisted is the clearest possible
signal that a sea change in thinking is required. Impoverished and beleaguered
though the cultural and arts practitioners of the city are, they remain
the key to ways out of our cultural impasse and to wider civic enablement.
They should be given the chance and the resources to prove it.