Young at Art: how the Belfast Children’s Festival is putting the city on the global map

Getting Dressed by Second Hand Dance. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli Getting Dressed by Second Hand Dance. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
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Young at Art has been inspiring children in Northern Ireland and around the world for 20 years. Director Eibhlin de Barra tells Jane Coyle about this year’s theme of family

Young at Art was first launched in Belfast in 1998, the same year as the Good Friday Agreement, a watershed for social and political change and new cultural realities in Northern Ireland.

This year marks its 20th birthday. From modest beginnings it has expanded to become Northern Ireland’s leading arts resource for children, teenagers, parents and teachers.

As a social enterprise agency, it delivers a year-round engagement programme, encompassing creative writing, the visual arts, educational workshops, creative showcases, professional training and large-scale public spectaculars.

Its flagship event is the Belfast Children’s Festival, an international arts and culture event for young people, which, in terms of footfall, is the largest in Ireland and one of the largest in the UK. Its 2018 programme incorporates 170 events in  18 venues across the city over the course of six days.

“The theme this year is family and the diverse forms a modern-day family can take,” says director Eibhlin de Barra, who took up the post in 2016, having worked as Young at Art’s programme officer since 2012. “Many events ask important questions around the central theme,” she adds.

Horses by Kabinet K and Hetpaleis. Photo: Kurt Van Der Elst
Horses by Kabinet K and Hetpaleis. Photo: Kurt Van Der Elst

Cahoots NI’s Penguins considers same-sex relationships through the love between two male penguins who long for a child. Horses, by Belgian company Kabinet K, explores  the notion of family as a community, while Amadan’s Pink  and Blue is a gender exploration. Then, Getting Dressed by Second Hand Dance looks at how people respond to how others dress.

De Barra says: “I don’t think of a theme and then look around for work to fit in it. The theme emerges from the work, all of which is hand-picked. In the past month, I’ve been in South Korea, Germany and Galway seeing work that may find its way here in 2020.”

Nicola Curry, founder and artistic director of Maiden Voyage Dance, was a member of the organisation’s original small administrative team. She says the initial idea for a designated festival was prompted by a gap in arts provision.

English academic Anna Cutler approached the Belfast Festival at Queen’s (now the Belfast International Arts Festival) shortly after moving to the city and asked why it had no events for young audiences. She developed a programme and a successful Arts Council of Northern Ireland lottery application, which supported the first Young at Art festival in October 1998.

“From the outset it successfully married excellent international work with opportunities for local artists to develop work for young audiences. Belief in their creative potential provided the catalyst for bold and fundamentally fruitful risks,” says Curry, adding that it helped her launch a company herself. “Establishing a contemporary dance company in Belfast  suddenly didn’t seem all that impossible.”

Young at Art’s longest-serving director Ali Fitzgibbon was in the post for almost 13 years. She was initially the only permanent staff member and recalls that the main task during her early years was “to focus the organisation’s ambition and energy and try to get underlying support to match that dynamism and passion”.

Eibhlin de Barra. Photo: Brian Morrison
Eibhlin de Barra. Photo: Brian Morrison

She continues: “I wanted to see the whole sector thrive and grow. A rising tide floats all boats. If throughout the year we can collectively make more, and better, and artists can not only sustain themselves but have the dreams and opportunities to create on a world scale, we will have a rich cultural resource for years to come.”

No single company can achieve that, she says, and so worked with partners including Paul McEneaney at Cahoots NI and Eimear Henry at Replay Productions, “to establish an annual showcase and ignite bigger and better connections with  networks like Assitej, the International Association of Theatre for Young People”.

Fitzgibbon says it is hard to imagine that in the late 1990s organising professional events and programmes for and with children was a new concept.

“There were some, but not many, artists and organisations working in that way. Now there’s better provision, more artists thinking about and working with children. But there’s still much to be achieved. The organisation continues because there remains a need to lead by example and in collaboration, a need to challenge, educate and persuade in equal measure,” she says.

“This has never been ‘just’ a festival. From its earliest days, it was involved year round in building knowledge, capacity and confidence in order to realise the ambition of creating original, inspiring events and programmes that children, their schools and families want to be part of. It has played its role in civic, political and educational debates in the city about urban planning and regeneration, children’s rights, tourism, arts provision, audience development, inclusion, education and youth policy.”


Five things you need to know about Young at Art and the Belfast Children’s Festival

1. Young at Art’s outreach and engagement work draws in children from areas of high deprivation. In 2017, 31% of the audience came from some of Northern Ireland’s most socially deprived areas.

2. Ali Fitzgibbon conceived the Baby Rave for the 2005 festival. It now has a growing international presence.

3. Fighting Words Belfast runs free creative writing workshops for young people aged six to 18. Its patrons are writers Glenn Patterson, Roddy Doyle, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, Lucy Caldwell and Paul Muldoon.

4. All Young at Art’s directors have been women: Anna Cutler (1997/8-2002); Rebecca Hunter (2002-2003); Ophelia Byrne (2003); Ali Fitzgibbon (2004-2016); Eibhlin de Barra 2016 to present.

5. Last year, over the course of the six-day festival, Eibhlin de Barra walked 36,534 steps covering a distance of 27.8km between venues.

A number of leading Northern Irish creatives and companies acknowledge the crucial role Young at Art has played in their own development. Zoe Seaton is co-founder and artistic director of Big Telly, one of the region’s longest-established independent theatre companies.

“Big Telly’s first partnership with Young at Art was when we presented The Little Mermaid in a swimming pool during the 2005 festival,” she says. “Little did we guess that it would go on to play in Taiwan, Denmark, Belgrade and at festivals all over the UK and Ireland.

“We were blown away by the willingness of then director Fitzgibbon to take risks and encourage high ambition and commitment to work for young audiences.”

Children at a Mano puppetry show by El Patio. Photo: Neil Harrison
Children at a Mano puppetry show by El Patio. Photo: Neil Harrison

It was the first time the company made work for a family audience, as opposed to projects designed for specific age groups in educational settings, says Seaton. “It alerted us to the impact and importance of shared creative experiences across the generations and has subsequently underpinned most of Big Telly’s work.”

Belfast-based Cahoots NI is highly respected for producing theatre aimed at young people. In early February it opened Penguins at the Birmingham Repertory and Shh! We Have a Plan is currently on a 14-week tour of the US. Co-founder and artistic director McEneaney attributes the existence of the company to Young at Art.

“Cutler commissioned me to create something for the 2000 festival. I wrote and performed a show called Puppet Magic, which was invited to several international festivals. Back then the only way to get public funding was to set up a company. Young at Art was the trigger,” he says.

“The festival has grown significantly over the years but  its ethos and values remain the same. It gives children in Northern Ireland the opportunity to experience world-class performance on their doorstep by bringing in internationally regarded artists to inspire and ignite their imaginations.”

It is a philosophy the current director, De Barra, shares and wants to build on. “My aim is to put Belfast on the global map and make it a sought-after festival for delegates from across the world,” she says. “I also want it to provide a platform for emerging local artists to try out new work at an early stage, putting it in front of international producers, theatremakers and dance-makers.

“All children’s lives are enriched by the arts. It’s probable that our festival gives children in Northern Ireland their first experience of live performance. We take our role in championing the rights of young people to have access to the arts very seriously and, in the process, making the world a bigger and more wondrous place for them.”

Profile: Young at Art

Director: Eibhlin de Barra
Number of events: More than 170 across 18 venues (including main programme, schools performances and industry programme)
Audience figures: Projected 30,000 over the six days of
Belfast Children’s Festival
Number of employees: Three full-time and seven, part-time, plus two interns
Turnover: Approximately £425,000 (Young at Art), of which £172,000 is core costs and £170,000 the Belfast Children’s Festival
Funding levels: Core funded by Arts Council of Northern Ireland (£166,500, of which £112,300 is exchequer/core and £54,200 lottery/programming); Creative Child programme receives £43,500 from BBC Children in Need’s main grant scheme. Full list of funders, sponsors and supporters on: youngatart.co.uk
Key contact: Eibhlin de Barra

Belfast Children’s Festival runs from March 9-March 14