His quiff curled skyward. The white snakeskin boots, matching his white suit and white collar, reinforced the supposedly oily nature of the Southern preacher man. We had gathered on a street corner to witness democracy’s funeral, listening to a tirade against fracking and vested interests. The preacher’s quiff bounced insistently as he admonished us through a loudspeaker that only half-heartedly worked.
Part of Belfast’s fifth Culture Night, Friends of the Earth staged a wandering New Orleans style jazz funeral in honour of democracy. Behind, a restaurant staged a flash-fiction writing event. A little further down the street, Pro Westling Ulster brought what the programme described as “its hard hitting American Style Wrestling” back to Belfast’s streets.
Culture Night Belfast proudly claims to be a big tent – “a big party where everyone’s invited.” And, despite a theoretical theme of Reconstruction for 2013’s event, the result is a muddle. It is a collection of stuff. It is unwittingly, but fittingly for Northern Ireland, a celebration of consumption and alcohol.
Our Southern preacher, who was supposedly from Brooklyn, declared “Maybe we buy the kind of economy we have, the kind of culture…” His words rattled through my head as I wandered the streets of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.
A common lament of the arts sector, heard from Belfast to Sydney, from Athens to Vancouver, is about the lack of investment in culture. It was heard earlier in the day, at a discussion that asked if economic regeneration can be driven by the creative and cultural industries.
Dr Kate Oakley, an academic at the University of Leeds, was, in turn, pessimistic and optimistic about the possibilities for culturally driven regeneration. Her analysis was that such economic growth did not deliver good jobs, didn’t deliver enough of them, and delivered them in the wrong places. In a criticism of Richard Florida’s work on the creative class, Oakley noted that even when cultural regeneration works it disproportionately benefits the highly educated and middle class.
Sean Kelly from the Cathedral Quarter Trust, which presents Culture Night, proudly declared it was a “demonstration of how the creative industries can deliver regeneration.” That’s fine if you believe that regeneration is about providing bars, restaurants and nightclubs with patrons for a night.
But nothing about Culture Night provides commercial or financial support for the arts. The event is free. We can assume that most organisations involved survive on public sector funding. Such funding is crucial in a mature society, but perhaps not the best example of economic growth in an area that depends on the public sector.
Supporters of Culture Night point to the wonderful atmosphere on the streets. People got to experience Belfast in a different way. Yet, for many who attend Culture Night, the culture is irrelevant; consumption (of alcohol) is the only reason for their attendance. It is an excuse to wander the streets with a drink in each hand.
There is something unusual in Culture Night claiming partial credit for a regeneration that feeds consumption, rather than asking people to personally invest in the arts. We pay to enjoy an experience. And that many who attend Culture Night think nothing of spending £50 in Belfast’s bars rather than investing in the city’s artistic life says much about our skewed priorities.
It does not help that Culture Night lacks a thread to connect the various dots. Some say that you cannot organise people’s enjoyment of culture. But it can be curated. It can be presented in a way that brings meaning beyond the enjoyment of culture for culture’s sake. Appropriate signposting and thematic clustering would help. Enhancing the experience of the art and culture should take precedence over facilitating those who want background colour and noise to their bar crawl. Describing the night as a big party belittles the cultural experience.
“The event may only last for six hours but what we can build can last for so much longer,” declares this year’s programme. That is not good enough. After five years, Culture Night Belfast needs to up its game. The arts sector needs to be genuine about realising the opportunity of culturally-led regeneration. It needs leadership and ambition, and it needs to be strategic about what it does. Critically, it needs to differentiate its offering from consumption-led regeneration.
It also needs to broaden the appeal of arts and culture. The audience wandering around at Culture Night was a visibly middle-class one. Young people in deprived areas of Belfast say that nothing in the city centre is of benefit to them. An aimless alcohol fuelled party, centred on the fashionable bars of the city rather than the opportunity of cultural regeneration, is unlikely to change that impression.
As our preacher friend reminds us, “Maybe we buy the kind of culture we have.”