“I have to remain optimistic” – Interview with Eileen Branagh, the Chief Executive Officer of Open Arts

How long has Open Arts been in operation?

The organisation has been running since 1992, so it has just passed its 26th year.

Before that it was a research project based at Queens University with Dr Michael Swallow and Kate Ingram who was our founding Chief Executive. Kate retired in 2013 and I took over from her.

What is the primary focus of the organisation?

Our core programme each week is working mainly with disabled adults. We run 8 independent user classes; where people come along of their own accord. We also have 4 group sessions with Day Centre clients where people from Day Centres come along with their support staff.

What kind or arts activities do you facilitate?

Our programmes involve every art form. We have a drama group, creative writing, we have the Open Arts Community Choir which is 18 years old this year.

We also have visual arts; we have 3 visual arts groups, one in the Crescent Arts Centre, one in Morton Community Centre off the Lisburn Road, and one in Divis Community Centre, the latter is a group which works with people who are blind or visually impaired.

We have the only full Javanese Gamalan in Northern Ireland. Gamalan is an orchestra of percussion instruments and is designed in such a way that people with any disability, or in any age group, can experience and participate in playing music.

Our musical director can have participants making music very quickly using the Gamalan instruments and techniques.

And your organisation works primarily with people who have disabilities?

Yes, as I have said, that is our main focus. It is important to say here that we work with all kinds of disability.

We work with people, who have physical disabilities, learning disabilities, sensory impairment or mental health difficulties. We are aren’t focused on a specific disability; we welcome anyone who has any form of disability.

We do have a couple of inclusive projects, the Gamalan Performance Group and the Open Arts Community Choir, both of which are inclusive so they would have people with disabilities, and people without, participating together. But all of our other core activities are solely for people with disabilities.

And you follow a participatory arts approach?

Yes absolutely. Everything we do, all our core programmes and anything beyond that, starts with the idea that participants create their own work and our facilitators work to encourage and support that.

If you look at our dance project, Luminous Soul, which is the only contemporary dance group for disabled people in Northern Ireland, Helen Hall our choreographer offers guidance but the crucial element of the programme is that the participants produce their own work. She will set creative tasks, for example, small groups or duos, and Helen will fuse and knit all the various bits and pieces together to create the full choreography.

What comes out of your projects and programmes?

Along with the transferring of skills and the social bonding, our choir has toured the world, we have exhibited in the Ulster hall, The MAC, The Black Box and in the gallery space in the Crescent Arts Centre.

The Community Choir travelled to the European Choir Games last year and came back with two gold medals and a gold diploma. They were there on their artistic merit and performed incredibly well.

We want the work that people produce to be of good quality and the exhibitions, the work of the choir and the dance group shows that to be the case.

What are you looking to do in the future?

In the immediate future we are preparing for our dancers to travel to and participate in MeetShareDance festival, an inclusive international dance festival that we will be held in Porto in July. We are currently working to raise money for the trip, which has been supported by Arts Council NI, but we still have a bit of money to raise.

(If you wish to help the Local Giving page can be found here)

We are aiming to increase our work with children and young people. We are in our third year with Children in Need as funders and we are working with the organisations Angel Eyes and Autism Initiatives NI. We want to build this work into our core programme.

We have also had projects working with children but we want to make our work more substantial in this area especially given that if there are people who want to become a dancer for example they have to start at a young age.

We are working on a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream which brings together all of our groups, the drama, music and dance groups and we will be performing the production in the main theatre at The MAC.

How have the cuts impacted the work that you do?

We were lucky in this round of funding allocation but we received a cut last year. However as the cuts filter through, for example the Crescent Arts Centre received a cut and that could at some point feed through to us given we are based here.

In our view the less money in the sector the worse it is for everyone. We have to partner with other organisations in order to ensure that we can carry out the work that we do.

I do feel optimistic though. The Arts Matter Ni Campaign feels stronger than it has before and it looks like it is starting to get a little bit of traction. I do feel relatively hopeful that we can improve the outlook for the sector.

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.