It started, as so many things do nowadays, on Facebook. ‘During this last year,’ recalls East Belfast Arts Festival chair Maurice Kinkead, ‘a guy named Gavin Bloomer just stuck a page on and said “Anybody interested in an arts festival in east Belfast?”/
‘About 250 people immediately responded and said yes. And so I contacted Gavin and said “Yeah, we’d be really keen to do something like that”.’
By ‘we’ Kinkead means the East Belfast Partnership (of which he is chief executive), one of five charitable agencies which work together towards the regeneration of the eastside's economically challenged districts.
Kinkead’s enthusiasm for the idea of an arts festival in his local area made him a natural figurehead for the new project. He has, however, been working with what he wryly describes as ‘no staff’ to get things up and running, bar some administrative assistance from his own East Belfast Partnership.
‘To make the thing happen, we’ve just had to run with it,’ smiles Kinkead, for whom double-jobbing and hours of painstaking attention to detail have become a grinding necessity in the run-up to this year’s inaugural festival, which takes place from September 5 - 9.
‘We’re completely buck-mad, this is completely nuts!’ he laughs, reflecting on the shoestring budget he’s been operating with – some of which was provided by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland – and the short time that’s been available (seven months) to put this year’s event together. ‘For me, this isn’t a steep learning curve – this is completely vertical!’
The hard work has, however, paid dividends, not least in securing the legendary Belfast singer-songwriter Van Morrison to headline the keynote event, a 'Big Top Festival' in a covered marquee at Aircraft Park on Saturday, September 8.
Kinkead is engagingly matter-of-fact about how relatively straightforward it was booking the iconic singer for a festival with zero track record.
‘Somebody at a planning meeting said, “Why don’t we just ask Van if he’ll do something?”’ An email, a couple of phone calls, and a brief face-to-face meeting later, and the East Belfast Arts Festival had scooped its headline attraction. ‘He said yes more or less immediately.’
Morrison was, famously, born on Hyndford Street, and roamed the streets of east Belfast as a teenager, writing some of his greatest songs about the area. His Aircraft Park appearance will be a small piece of musical history.
‘It’s the first time he’s performed in east Belfast since the very early Them and pre-Them days,’ Kinkead comments. ‘I’ve heard him a couple of times over the past few months, and he’s in great form at the moment, really quite relaxed.’
Headliners of Morrison’s calibre are, of course, crucially important in establishing the credentials of any festival, let alone a brand-new one. Kinkead is, however, at pains to emphasise the range of talented performers the EBAF will be presenting, many of whom were either born or live locally.
That emphasis on local talent is deliberate in an area which Kinkead argues has historically been starved of cultural nourishment. ‘For me east Belfast has been a bit of a cultural desert,’ he comments. ‘For example, there isn’t a proper music venue anywhere, no Pavilion, no Errigle, no Lavery’s, nothing like that.’
With purpose-built performance spaces at a premium, creative thinking has been needed to house the wide variety of events (over 40 in total) featured in this year’s festival. The full programme of events is now available via the EBAF website.
A theatre double-bill at the Westbourne Glentoran Supporters Club, world music workshops at the Connswater Shopping Centre, and stand-up comedy and a 'Mini Magic Club' at Belmont Tower, are just three of the novel solutions Kinkead and his team have come up with, embedding events firmly in the heart of the communities from which they hope to draw their audience.
Other festival highlights include singer-songwriter Gareth Dunlop (watch video below), an exhibition by east Belfast art collective Creative Exchange, a Literary Walking Tour and the Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival, which again takes place at the Stormont Hotel.
In forging the identity of the new festival, Kinkead hasn’t hesitated to look westward, drawing inspiration from the example of Féile an Phobail, the West Belfast Festival, which next year celebrates its 25th anniversary.
‘We’ve made good contact,’ says Kinkead. ‘I would be in touch with Danny Morrison (the chair of Féile). He took a table at our fundraiser, and came for the whole night with some of his team. They’ve been very, very supportive.
‘Maybe we could do some big events together,’ Kinkead muses. ‘Maybe west and east together could do some city centre events that wouldn’t make any sense if we were doing them separately.’ It’s an intriguing possibility, and one which Kinkead and Morrison may well choose to return to in the future.
In the meantime there will, inevitably, be those who say that at a time of serious recession the money being invested in the EBAF, and events like it, would be better spent in alleviating more pressing social issues.
Kinkead understands the ‘more schools, more hospitals’ argument, but passionately advocates the positive contribution he thinks art and cultural activities can make to a community, especially in times of economic difficulty.
‘Particularly in disadvantaged areas – where life can be very grey – life’s a struggle,' he comments. 'Life can be difficult for people, but I actually think having some of the life and colour that arts and culture can bring makes a real difference to people.’
Kinkead cites an example on his own east Belfast doorstep of a public artwork which he feels has been notably successful. ‘We spent £180,000 on Yardmen,’ he says, ‘a sculpture that Ross Wilson has done, which is three guys from the shipyard coming home after a day’s work.
‘We’ve put it down in what is one of the most disadvantaged areas in western Europe, the Ballymacarrett ward. That piece of art hasn’t been touched. Local people somehow seem to value it. I think it has added something.’
That broader vision of what artistic and cultural activities can achieve, how they can help to heal and re-energise damaged, disadvantaged communities, is clearly what fuels Kinkead’s enthusiasm for the whole EBAF initiative.
‘The really important part of this,’ he says, ‘is having an arts festival in east Belfast. I actually think the most important thing for the regeneration of east Belfast is the spirit of the area. A community can’t be built on just straightforward, practical things.
‘I hope the festival will be a really good experience for everybody participating in it. I don’t want to see it as happening for just five days. I want it to be the engine for people doing creative things in the area and enjoying them, so that people think cultural expression is good for us, and it’s good for east Belfast as a whole.’