voluntary arts ireland

Friday, 4 November 2011

A Voluntary Night at the Opera

Left to Right David McLoughlin CEO Wexford Festival Opera, Peter Scallan Chair Wexford Festival Opera, Connor Brennan Director of Broker Distribution Zurich, David Agler Artistic Director Wexford Festival Opera,Elizabeth Foley Wexford Festival Opera/Zurich Volunteers Award Recipient 2011, David Maguire Volunteers Representative Wexford Festival Trust Board of Directors,Kevin Murphy Chief Officer Voluntary Arts Ireland

My first visit to Wexford Opera on Thursday 3rd November was to attend the award ceremony of the inaugural Wexford Festival Opera Volunteer of the Year Award sponsored by Zurich. Voluntary Arts Ireland had supported the award and sat on the awarding panel.

I had heard about Wexford’s volunteers and how they really get behind the festival and help create a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere – but I had no idea how embedded in the culture of the festival they were until I went there.

Chairman of Wexford Festival Trust, Peter Scallan said, "Wexford Festival Opera was born of the foresight and enthusiasm of a small local voluntary group and is now a renowned international event.   The volunteer spirit has been key to our success and we are committed to developing this essential core ethos into the future.”

What is striking is that this was self-evident. There was no discernible distinction between professional staff and voluntary staff – they were all informed, enthusiastic and possessed a rare sense of pride in and belonging to the festival.

The inspirational Elizabeth Foley, on whom the inaugural award was bestowed, is a perfect example. Described as one of the hidden heroes of Wexford Festival Opera Elizabeth has been a volunteer at the Theatre Royal and subsequently the Opera House since she was a little girl, then assisting her mother.  In turn she has involved her daughters and indeed her grandchildren, two of whom I met on the night, helping with the tea and biscuits in the Green Room. 

Elizabeth shared some thoughts on her experience with Wexford Festival Opera in this brief video vox pop.

The connection to Wexford Festival Opera runs wide and deep through the citizens of Wexford. Not only have families across generations been supporting it but in many cases this has included long gaps away as people moved from the area for work or study only to return, sometimes decades later, to pick up where they had left off.

This is real, long-term community development and who would have thought that Opera could help achieve this – not its traditional moniker. Perhaps it just goes to show that the arts are inherently open activities – that work best when people from across our communities participate in them, nurture them and make them a part of their everyday life.

And what of the opera performance itself, La Cour de Célimène – what use of all this civic action if the art is no good, I hear you say. Well it was tremendous – engaging, witty and a visual and aural feast. All built on volunteer effort.....congratulations Elizabeth and congratulations Wexford Festival Opera.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

We Are More

The We Are More campaign is a Europe wide advocacy campaign that seeks to increase the EU budget for cultural activity in the next budget cycle. Talks for that start in July and at the moment the EU budget for cultural activity is 0.05%.

Its difficult to imagine how we could have collectively under-invested in cultural activity to such an extent. This perhaps reflects the pervading lack of understanding of policy makers of the value of culture, but it could just a likely reflect the cultural communities inability to lobby effectively.

After all people and communities get culture, otherwise why do they continue to form groups, put on performances and get their children involved? Despite the vagaries of government funding and stop start policy initiatives people continue to organise cultural activity for themselves and their communities.

Is it possible that those of us who professionally represent the arts and cultural sector have neglected our duty to translate that community interest into policy that makes sense and the investment required to create the maximum return for society?

If so, there is at least evidence that we are beginning to address this issue. There are National Campaigns for the Arts in Ireland and the UK which are encouraging the arts and cultural sector to engage with politicians on a range of platforms and policies. There is a sense too that politicians and arts workers need to work more effectively together. The traditional them and us stance is gradually being replaced by a more constructive relationship.

It is a striking story that in a recent campaign in Northern Ireland in response to a draft government budget which proposed a significant cut to the arts over 5000 people wrote letters opposing the cuts - the next biggest campaign numbered letters in the small hundreds.

People do support arts and culture, and politicians probably want to do so too. Its the job of the arts and culture sector to give them the reasons to say yes.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Virtual Word of Mouth

At a recent training event in Naas, Ireland Voluntary Arts Ireland in partnership with Artlands delivered a beginner's guide to social media. Increasingly we can see tools such as Facebook and Twitter being the first and best entry into an online presence for small arts groups looking to develop their audience and promote their events.

We can also see many groups struggle with the concept of the virtual world and how to begin to inhabit that space. Groups can see that there is potential there but are unsure of the rules of engagement and how much time and effort is required. During the training we came to the conclusion that in fact social media is simply a reworking of a very traditional and natural form of promotion, word of mouth.

This reworking is quite extensive of course with the added elements of images and videos through tools such as YouTube and Flickr but essentially it is digital show and tell.

Like all good word of mouth it takes the form of a conversation and this perhaps gives us a clue as to how to successfully navigate the social media world. The best conversationalists are good listeners and show a genuine interest in what those they are talking to are interested in. They are engaging and empathetic.

It is all too tempting when entering this virtual word of mouth world to broadcast noisily about what we do. Whilst "look at me" is important and we shouldn't hide our light under a bushel (just getting cliched up!) perhaps joining the online conversation using the well worn social skills learned from our mothers might be a better approach.

Is it possible too that in the online, binary landscape we currently wander through, these technological advances are finally beginning to be useful for our primary urge to lead more meaningful, creative and connected lives?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Northern Ireland Politicians Talk Arts and Culture

The recent arts hustings event in Northern Ireland organised by Audiences NI, Arts & Business and Voluntary Arts Ireland saw the five main political parties begin to set out their policies in relation to arts and culture. With their policies only published the day before it gave a strong turn out from the arts community the opportunity to open up a positive dialogue with candidates seeking election.

The proceedings took the form of a panel discussion with questions and answers hosted by the talented BBC presenter Marie-Louise Muir. A provocation was provided by Declan McGonagle, one of the most influential figures to emerge from the arts scene in the north west, who said "It’s the economy that is broken in this society, not the culture," and called for a fundamental reworking of the relationship between the arts community and the politicians who make funding decisions - "we need to break the cycle of threat, cut, begging, and reprieve"

Although the event did not solve the very many challenges faced by the arts and cultural community there was a sense that an opportunity now exists to reframe the discussion and to engage politicians in a robust policy debate. A quick survey of the manifestos outlining the various policies the main political parties will promote if elected confirms that we are very much at the start of this debate. Policies still struggle to get away from partisan positions and neglect the need to provide access to cultural and creative activities as a fundamental entitlement for all citizens.

But make no mistake culture and the arts is definitely on the agenda. Why not engage with your candidates on the basis of their policy towards culture, arts and leisure – maybe we can move the debate on.

The main political party manifestos are available through the following links:

Alliance Party             http://www.allianceparty.org/
DUP                          http://www.mydup.com/efiles/DUP_Manifesto_2011/index.html#/28/
SDLP                        http://www.sdlp.ie/images/files/44339%20final%20low%20res2.pdf
Sinn Fein                    http://www.sinnfein.ie/files/AssemblyManifesto2011.pdf
UUP                          http://www.uup.org/index.php/jo-anne-dobson/item/389-campaign-story-3.html

Monday, 11 April 2011

Square Mile, Round Mile

It is still a little known fact that the City of London and the City of Derry/Londonderry are linked in a rather unique way. The current form of Derry/Londonderry with its still intact walls (one mile round) was not only built by money from London companies but is still owned by the Honourable The Irish Society - a committee of the Corporation of London established by Royal Charter in 1613. Relations between the square mile of the City of London and the round mile of Derry/Londonderry have very often been about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. As the 400th anniversary of the relationship is fast approaching in 2013 it brings the shared histories into sharp focus.

Last week on the 07th and 8th of April 2011 Voluntary Arts Ireland helped host a visit by the Barbican Centre and the Honourable The Irish Society to look at shared programming, co-commissioning and knowledge exchange in the context of Derry/Londonderry's City of Culture year also in 2013. Louise Jeffrey's - Director of Programming, Sean Gregory - Director of Creative Learning, Catherine McGuinness - Board of Barbican and Deputy Governor of the Honourable The Irish Society, and Edward Montgomery - the Irish Society's local representative took a whirlwind tour around Derry's cultural, educational and creative organisations.

What struck me was the possibility to look at the City of Derry/Londonderry as an interconnected cultural cluster, a place where you could programme across spaces, landscape, art forms and themes, across voluntary, community and professional arts. The city as a whole is compact enough to create this dynamic. Within the city walls alone there are at least 7 arts venues alongside a huge range of organisations and creative businesses. If you add the soon to be developed cultural cluster at Ebrington Barracks - no longer needed for military purposes - which is going to be joined to the city walls across the River Foyle by a foot and cycle bridge, the heart of the city will be transformed into an engine of cultural activity. Even this is not the whole story. Community and voluntary arts organisations across the city region have been keeping communities together through the arts for decades and as well as the city centre focus there are hubs of artistic endeavour operating at the very core of local communities.

The very big challenge with this is of course how to make the local relationships strong and effective so that the cultural offer in Derry/Londonderry can operate as a whole, as individuals and as ad hoc partners for particular projects including working with international partners. In the end it is likely to be the people and the relationships that matter and it is in that space that the work is needed. My guess is that this is not a challenge that is unique to Derry/Londonderry. No doubt the City of London faces this too.

The concept of the Square Mile, Round Mile was first articulated by the brilliantly insightful Ian Ritchie of the City of London Festival, who has championed shared programming between the two cities for a number of years. How the City of Derry and the City of London shape this towards 2013 will be fascinating.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Old fashioned democracy?

Well its official, the Northern Irish arts community will have its very own hustings event on 19th April 2011 from 09.30am-12pm in the Grand Opera House, Belfast. Invited representatives from all the political parties will articulate their policies towards the arts and members of the arts community across Northern Ireland will get the chance to question and challenge those policies.

I'm sure its not the first arts hustings event in Northern Ireland but it certainly is not a regular occurance in the region and perhaps taking a leaf out of the National Campaign for the Arts in Ireland is the beginning of a more constructive dialogue between the sector and government.

There are many questions to raise with political parties in Northern Ireland not least "do you have a policy on the arts?" Questions around how the arts impacts on peoples' lives are also likely to take precedence - the contribution of the arts to a healthier civil society, to the economy, to wellbeing, to education, to the economy. Perhaps fundamental to this is how to place the arts within policy - its not a singularly definable subject, indeed its strength is in its diversity. This is often at odds with the way in which government in Northern Ireland is structured, however, how is that Health - itself a fantastically diverse range of disciplines commands such singular attention? There is perhaps something for the arts to learn in this?

Nevertheless the old-fashioned democratic values a hustings event has come to represent should be a natural catalyst for the many articulate people involved in the arts in Northern Ireland. It is true to say that a lot of the time now we are seeing these debates carried out online through social media, which is perhaps the up to date hustings. Very much to the vanguard and the potential for seismic change when it is wedded to citizens' core desires is certainly exciting as witnessed in places such as Egypt.

We could well need a seismic change in arts policy now - some would say it is long overdue. In a small way this live hustings could be the beginning - lots of small changes often add up.

To book your place at the event please contact karen.orawe@audiencesni.com or tel: 028 9043 6480.

For more Voluntary Arts Ireland news visit http://www.vaireland.org

Monday, 7 March 2011

Life is Organic

Its been a very interesting day attending first a breakfast meeting and then an all day session around creativity as part of Derry/Londonderry's Cracking the Code programme leading up to the 2013 City of Culture.

An impressive bank of speakers including Sir Ken Robinson and Phil Redmond were punctuated by some engaging local characters and idea generating sessions in smaller groups. On behalf of Voluntary Arts Ireland I played a strong part thinking about how participation in the arts and crafts stimulates creativity. However, I was struck most by a phrase that came from Ken Robinson's initial address - "life is organic not linear"

When we think of all of the structures and processes that seem to provide the framework for our activities on the ground - virtually none of them are organic - they are nearly all linear and top-down. And yet this is just the opposite of how we, as human beings, go about living and interacting with others.

Take the creative process, which was also talked about today. We get an idea or a kernel of an idea, we play with it, we refine it, we connect it to other ideas and sometimes it becomes something that we act upon - we create it. One of the key skills in this process is the suspension of critical judgement. I might also say that one of the key skills is critical judgement. However, we must be able to suspend it long enough for us to create a bank of possibilities that encourage us to take the kernel further.

Critical judgement seems to be at the heart of most of the structures and processes mentioned above - it is a fairly advanced form of compounded critical judgement that say creates the legal system, and the influence of critical judgement is very great throughout policy making.

But is this now to our best advantage? Is this focus the way in which we are going to create a wider bank of possibilities that we all now seem to be seeking? Life is clearly organic and critical judgement has a part to play but do we have the balance right?

Kevin Murphy
Chief Officer
Voluntary Arts Ireland