The eclectic week of talks, workshops, theatre, poetry, comedy, music, exhibitions, film and tours attracted a record audience of 37,397 online and in-person attendees – an amazing increase of 306% from the previous festival. The festival explored the theme ‘Brain Food: A Feast of Ideas for A Better World’ with an attractive range of food related events and visual assets.
We are very appreciative of the funding provided this year by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Reconciliation Fund, VSB Foundation, the Arts Council for Northern Ireland National Lottery Project Fund, Future Screens NI; Linen Quarter BID, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast City Council, Open University Northern Ireland, and the Community Relations Council.
Most of the events (54%) were free as the festival rolled out a huge programme including headliners such as the world-renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky; American political scientist Francis Fukuyama; British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt; author and transgender activist, Shon Faye; campaigner George Monbiot; visual artist Colin Davidson; journalist Sally Hayden and satirist Oliver Callan and a host of other exciting arts, heritage and cultural events with many sold out or oversubscribed.
Musicians included the legendary performer, John Otway; alternative punks, Wood Burning Savages; the acclaimed Australian song writer, Robert Forster; and a special politics and poetry event with leading politicians taking to the stage. Comedy was well represented with Tiff Stevenson and Fin Taylor alongside poets such as Henry Normal and Medbh McGuckian and cabaret performer, Paddy Cullivan.
The unique festival also examined the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the run up to the local government elections with the premiere of ‘Agreement’ a new play by Owen McCafferty at the Lyric Theatre. A special ‘Democracy Day’ strand on 24 March focussed on citizen activism and the role of local changemakers. We also commissioned a large scale public participation project examining the ‘Forgotten Spaces’ in the city and Stephen Beggs, as our artist in residence, to deliver a humorous provocation encouraging voter registration.
Other events discussed touchstone issues such as how to stop violence against women; climate change; the prospect of a united Ireland; Scottish Independence; regeneration initiatives and poverty themes. Leading commentators such Professor Linda Bauld considered how to prepare for the next pandemic and Professor Jon Tonge discussed why we have so much political instability in Northern Ireland. In addition, we even had a quiz and a special poetry and politics pub crawl to whet the creative appetites!
We conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the festival through an audience survey involving 401 returns (1% sample). Our survey found that 99% of respondents felt the festival satisfied their expectations. It was particularly pleasing to find that 57% of audience members were attending a festival event for the first time and 48% of the sample had never been to the festival venue before, which confirms that we were able to reach new audiences and introduce them to new venues and partners. We also asked whether respondents considered themselves to be disadvantaged and found that 34% of the sample considered themselves to fall into this category which suggests were able to significantly engage with vulnerable and less well-off sections of the community.
We also found that 23% of our sample were visiting Belfast and Northern Ireland with 8% stating they lived in Ireland, 4% came from GB, 5% from rest of Europe and 2% from rest of world. For these out of state visitors, 21% said that attending the festival was the main reason for their visit to Belfast.
Our unique selling point, as a civic participation festival in Belfast, was recognised in media coverage and our speakers and performers appreciated the platform we were able to provide for them. We are looking forward to celebrating our 10th anniversary during 25-31 March 2024 and hope to welcome you to our special programme.