Despite the ravages of the pandemic, the 7th annual Imagine Belfast Festival proved to be our most successful offering to date, comprising 115 online events, 356 speakers & performers, 57 partners, and several special projects during 22-28 March 2021. The eclectic week of virtual talks, workshops, theatre, poetry, comedy, performance art, music, exhibitions, film, and tours attracted an increase of 133% in viewers from last year’s festival. Since the end of our festival, thousands more people across the world have accessed the events archived on our website and YouTube channel.
We have conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the festival. Our audience survey found that 94% of respondents felt the festival fully satisfied their expectations. It was particularly pleasing to find that 55% of audience members were attending a festival event for the first time which suggests that we were able to reach new audiences and introduce them to sponsors and partners. The global impact of our festival was confirmed by 19% of our attendees originating from outside the UK. We were also able to elicit considerable media coverage generating 90 items with AVE £88,806, PR value £266,419, and a reach of 2,624,670.
We were also delighted with the quality of the performances in our programme, confirmed by audience feedback and media reviews. The virtual nature of this year’s event allowed us to attract leading global figures and experts from around the world including Noam Chomsky, renowned playwright and commentator Bonnie Greer and a host of local talent. Other headliners include Bill McKibben, Angie Drobnic Holan, Paul Mason, Claire Fox, Gavin Esler, Roman Krznaric, Neil Hegarty, Sinead Gleeson, Charles Leadbeater and Senator Eileen Flynn. Working with 57 festival partners, events were organised, for example, with the British Academy, the Belfast Ensemble, Ulster Orchestra, Ballet Black, the Chilean arts group Memorarte, open Democracy and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The programme marked the first anniversary of the UK Covid lockdown on 23 March and a special ‘Democracy Day’ programme took place on 26 March.
We invited the public to suggest and organise events in November 2020 and received 32 proposals, all of which we were able to support. We were also delighted to involve a number of new partners in this year’s festival which included Deloitte, James Connolly Visitor Centre, We Make NI, Secondary Students Union NI, Letters with Wings, Liminal Belfast, V&A Museum, Step NI, the Alternative Economists, QUB Scoop, 64 Million Artists, 9ft in Common, Second Collective, Change the World in Song, Weave, The Academy of Ideas, Ulster Orchestra, the Belfast Ensemble, Ballet Black, Strand Arts Centre, Front Line Defenders, Duncairn Arts Centre, Memorarte, South Belfast Eco- Quaker Group, Smashing Times, Shelter NI, Blackstaff Press, Inside Ireland, 1 Day Sooner, and Urban Scale Interventions. Details of the full programme are available on the events section of our website.
Not content with managing 115 events, we also organised and supported the following special projects during the festival and commissioned an external evaluation of our work.
The Year That Never Was
This project, developed and delivered by Stephen Beggs and Heather Wilson, ran from 22-28 March in Connswater Shopping Centre, East Belfast. The project was designed to reflect a wide range of views and experiences of 2020 – what should it have been like and how did the pandemic impact on people.
We were delighted to be able to support this innovative project which was funded by the Arts Council for Northern Ireland and Department for Communities. The project, developed by Liminal Space Belfast and 9ft in Common, involved the creation of a series of artworks in alleys across Belfast during 25-28 March, together with an online conversation about the commission held on 25 March.
Second Collective & Marta Dyczkowska
We were also able to support an exciting project for mature women artists delivered by Second Collective. The project, funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Department for Communities, involved the commissioning of a solo exhibition by local artist, Marta Dyczkowska. Marta created an exhibition for the festival that was accompanied by an online artists’ talk and interview facilitated by Cathy Scullion and Sinéad O’Neill-Nicholl from Second Collective on 28 March.
100 Flags by John Baucher
This installation engaged a number of themes, ceremonial commemoration and remembrance. The work referenced trench art (repurposing and re imaging) along with the artists own experience of the syncretic nature of belief he witnessed in Haiti a year after the devastating earthquake.
Special festival bursary award: ‘art as a vehicle for change’
As a special project, we organised a competition to award a bursary of £3,000 to support new work on political art for presentation at the Imagine! Belfast Festival in March 2022. Funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Department for Communities in response to Covid-19 and the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the arts and cultural sectors in Northern Ireland, we were delighted to be make this award to Cat Barter.
Build Belfast Back Better
As a special project for the 2021 festival, we invited people to send us their top three proposals for change. In this project, we examined how placemaking can promote thriving communities in Belfast as we look towards a post-pandemic recovery. We were delighted with the response as the public enthusiastically took up the challenge with over 300 ideas received in March 2021. The campaign also attracted lots of media coverage. Thanks to everyone who took part. We will be encouraging policy makers to consider these proposals in the years ahead. All of the submissions can be viewed on our website.
We appreciate the generous assistance of our funders this year which include the Arts Council of Northern Ireland; the National Lottery’s Community Fund; the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Reconciliation Fund; VSB Foundation; Queen’s University Belfast; Community Relations Council; The Open University Northern Ireland, Future Screen NI, Ulster University and Social Change Initiative.
All in all, this was a challenging but successful festival which managed to achieve its objective of providing a platform for new ideas on politics, activism, and culture. Next year, subject to the usual funding caveats, we hope to run a full programme of physical events during 21-27 March alongside a number of events for live broadcast. We would like to thank everyone who has helped us this year as we look forward to meeting the challenges of the strange new world we now find ourselves in.