Stephen Dunlop, Chairman of Open House Festival was our keynote speaker at the Arts & Business NI Conference 2018. Below is a transcript of Stephen's keynote address:
Its great to see so many here today and it’s so reassuring to know that so many have an active interest in the Arts in Northern Ireland. I’m sure there are times when you all feel that it’s a lonely struggle – hopefully today you’ll connect and share some of the views and insights expressed.
The Arts is certainly an area that I have enjoyed for many years and recently become more passionate about, since taking on the role of Chairman of the Open House Festival in Bangor.
As a Chartered Surveyor for over 30 years I could perhaps be more articulate about property development and urban regeneration than the Arts in Northern Ireland or beyond, but for some years the two areas have become entwined for me and both more enjoyable because of the other.
Today I’d like to share with you some insights into Open House, the festival and the Board, and also my own observations on where we are and what we have to do. All views are my own and are not those endorsed by the Board of Open House Festival.
I’m sure its fair to say that when the Arts Council announced that its funding for 2018/19 would total £13.1m, an annual reduction of 4.7%, many in this room felt their hearts sink and looked to the ground in despair. This cut saw less funds going to 43 out of 100 publicly funded organisations, many of which needed the money to survive, and it would also leave seven groups completely cut off. I believe NI spends £4 per head on the arts whilst in England it is £14 – we all need to ask why!
Not only was the content of the message depressing but its timing was abysmal. Within Open House we plan our budgets well in advance and because of the delayed decision we had two budgets with options and once notified of our decreased funds we quickly had to implement the appropriate option – not good for planning – it may have stimulated some creative tension but definitely not in a productive way.
Without an active Stormont there was of course no political appeal that would have any meaning. It was then interesting when the following motion went before Belfast City Council:
“This council asserts the value of the arts in our everyday lives including our wellbeing, education, inclusion as well as our creative and evening economy and our tourism offering. Accordingly, the council extends its formal support to the “Arts Matter NI” Campaign for equal funding and agrees that an all-party delegation meet the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities to demand more funds for the arts.”
It was curious that the word so often used and abused in Northern Ireland, “culture”, wasn’t mentioned once despite my belief that it the creative energy of the peoples within Northern Ireland unite us more than divide us.
I think it is fair to say that we all endorse that motion and given that it was passed unanimously by Belfast City Council it will be interesting to see what influence can be brought to bear. I would suggest that every council in NI pass such a motion and join in the delegation to ensure that any uplift is shared equally and that all of Northern Ireland benefits from any increase. I applaud the Arts Matter NI Campaign for their proactive stance and hope that every arts group supports their action in every way possible. Let us all be united in that.
It was interesting reading in last weeks Belfast Telegraph that because Northern Ireland is experiencing an upward trend in tourism income, which is expected to be maintained for some time to come, there is a call among some for significant public funds to be invested in further attractions by way of enhancing the experience of those visitors.
Surely the answer to this call is obvious. The Arts Council England state that for every £1 invested, the nation benefits by £4 of rewards. I’m not sure how they calculate this but using Tourism NI methodology, Open House returned £11.30 for every £1 of public sector funds invested in its 2017 festival.
This principle of investing in “creativity” was recently promoted by Christine Payne, General Secretary of Equity in response to the cuts. She expressed it directly in saying:
“There continues to be a huge missed opportunity in Northern Ireland in terms of investing in the arts and building a strong creative economy. The creative sector is an engine of growth across the rest of UK, creating good, highly skilled jobs – it is a shame that Northern Ireland is losing out.”
The extra visitors will need entertained, stimulated, amused if their experience is to be enhanced. Can we give them something unique, something true to the essence of the Northern Ireland character – of course we can – that is the arts – our unique creative expression. Creativity is in our DNA. Speak to the visitors we have already and consistently you will hear that they have found the people of Northern Ireland entertaining, engaging, easy to get on with and at times too inclined to knock back themselves as opposed to putting others down. An endearing characteristic – not arrogant, not aloof, not distant.
I am fortunate that as part of my property management responsibilities I arrange for a number of apartments to be let out as holiday accommodation. I take the opportunity to interact with those that stay as much as possible.
In downtown Bangor we have had guests from Israel, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, Barbados as well as England and Ireland. They have come for a variety of reasons – swimming competitions, sailing events, family occasions but mostly curiosity and consistently they love it. They love the Titanic Museum, the Giants Causeway, our coastal roads but they love the people – the interaction – and that is the essence of the visitor experience.
What if – that called upon further investment, was put into the arts and those visitors arrived to find a buzzing, constantly happening, active arts scene – would they not be going home and telling all their friends that they too should visit Northern Ireland because it was such an interactive experience? Is that not a positive investment cycle?
In my property development work I cannot get project funding from traditional banks but I’ve been able to source funds from private equity based in Hong Kong. On a recent visit from one of our funders who is the Head of Corporate Financing for HSBC SE Asia, working out of Singapore – she employs over 300 people in offices from Shanghai to Hong Kong – over dinner I was asking her about the skills she looks for when employing people and she very quickly responded that what she found most attractive was individuals who had experience in drama.
This was because such individuals had a capacity to express themselves with confidence and demonstrate personality with creativity – not the answer I was expecting but all my children now do drama at school. Critical to her reasoning was that everything in life is about human interaction – even international corporate banking.
But I digress – the idea of a “place” buzzing with creative activity is not new or particularly novel. It is mostly organic and happens when a number of creative souls share space. But it can be nurtured, and should there be investment in the creative infrastructure of Northern Ireland it must be tasked with nurturing that energy.
That’s exactly what the Open House Festival does for the month of August to Bangor – indeed our catch phrase for this year is “Bangor is an energy” – this comes from John Lydon (Sex Pistols & Public Image Ltd) who expressed the view that “anger is an energy” and he will play his first ever gig in Ireland on Saturday 25th August as part of a punk weekender during the festival.
Every day during August an event will happen – something different, somewhere different – it connects people to place and it puts the arts at the heart of Bangor’s urban regeneration.
This hasn’t come about by accident. At the core of Open House there are two such creative souls – Kieran Gilmore and Alison Gordon. It was their vision that created the festival and over the years the Board has changed, grown and assisted in different ways.
Initially when established as a charitable company the Board was a group of friends who shared an interest in the arts and a respect for what Kieran and Alison sought to achieve. Over the years we have targeted those Bangor based individuals with skills and connections who could bring refreshed governance to the Board but critically they have shared a passion for Open House.
In the early days of Open House the focus was on getting the festival to work. With growth and responsibility for funds both external and those generated by ticket sales there has been a drive to refine governance and ensure it is operating best practice. This has meant bringing on new Board members who maybe come with senior management experience in the public or private sectors. Irrespective of their background they must have relevant skills which contribute to the festivals direction.
Let me share a recent example;
Having made all the appropriate moves to secure the redundant Bangor Court House as a year round venue and base, we established a Board sub-committee specifically for the Court House refurbishment. It needed new skills. We targeted new people who we knew had the right skills and experience – property development project management experience and a solicitor – both have expressed support for the festival in different ways and bought tickets for various events – they know who we are and what we want!
All current Board Members have relevant backgrounds, and each brings a fresh dynamic to the team. It is gender balanced and ego neutral - everyone mucks in. We are not shy, we are ambitious, and we are determined to drive the cultural regeneration of Bangor.
There are 3 full time staff, augmented by 3 part time during the build up to the festival, currently 8 Board members and 75 volunteers who will distribute brochures and steward events.
The creative direction may start with Kieran and Alison but all recommendations are shared, discussed, questioned from different perspectives – can it pay for itself, what staffing will it need, is there sponsorship, should it be free and subsidised by other events? Nothing is rubber-stamped.
From an early start the Board have demanded accurate statistics as a basis for pitching for future funds and any sponsorship opportunities. All Board members keep the statistics to hand and exploit them in different conversations whilst exploring sponsorship. The 2017 festival was the best to date and the statistics speak loud and clear:
Social media presence:
*Based on 1,812 customer feedback forms, completed both in person at events, and online after the Festival.
Where are you from?
If you hadn’t attended an Open House Festival event, how would you have spent your evening?
Open House isn’t just another local festival – it is an urban regeneration project. It is giving Bangor a stronger brand and a new post troubles, post-recession vision of itself. It is community focused and with an army of volunteers - it has opened up debate, created friendships, forged ambition, stimulated aspiration.
It has also attracted the “Nah Sayers” but unfortunately everything does – ignore them, they are jealous of others success – take it as a compliment.
Now Open House will soon conclude negotiations with the NI Court Service Officials from Department of Justice to obtain the transfer of the redundant Bangor Court House building. This will be under the Community Asset Transfer scheme and will allow the festival to have a more permanent home and to use that asset as a foundation stone to generate income and a new style of events and activities.
This will be a major step towards sustainability and real independence and I am really proud and honored to have contributed towards that goal. But it would not have happened without all the Board and the creative spark from Kieran and Alison.
We haven’t taken possession of the Court House just yet, but we have secured a commitment from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the first stage of refurbishing the building. This involves developing the ideas and detail of the project and we will then go forward with a second stage bid. Our aim is to be trading from fully refurbished premises by 2020.
Hopefully at that date we will be able to invite everyone down to host this inciteful conference in Bangor-by-the-sea.
Thank you very much for listening to me today and I would wish you well on your project and may it bear fruit for you in the manner that Open House continues to do for me.
Arts & Business is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.