The Monthly discusses the Imagine Belfast Festival with Festival Director, Peter O Neill – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

Is the festival only available online?

Yes, at this point in the pandemic we have to organise the events online

Does that hinder or expand the possibilities?

We do miss the audience interaction at physical events which has always been a feature at our festivals however going online does allow you to book speakers that you would never be able to get normally like Noam Chomsky who, given his age, wouldn’t probably be able to travel here. It’s also great to be able to involve disabled audience members and others who could have never been able attend our venues previously.

This year we expect to livestream most of the events compared to the pre-records we organised last year. When the pandemic hit, we had to pivot very quickly to deal with the first Covid Lockdown and luckily we were able to salvage around 50 of the 92 events we had planned.

This year, as I said earlier, we have 115 events and counting and we think we have the knowledge now to run most of the festival as live broadcasts and, all going well, it will run smoothly – famous last words!

Has there been any problems funding the festival?

We have attracted some project funding but, unlike other large festivals, we don’t receive core support from the major funders such as Belfast City Council. We rely on pots of money from universities, trusts and donations but we have low admin costs, and it is worth noting that it’s cheaper to run the festival online, especially when you don’t have travel, hotel or venue costs to consider. That really does make a big difference.

Are there any final thoughts?

This year we have really pushed the boat out launchng a competition for a special bursary of £3,000 funded by the Arts Council, with which we hope to support new work or performances on political art by practitioners based in Northern Ireland

I think it is worth adding that, as well as our local audiences, we now have a massive international reach which we might not have been able to have if we were limited to just being a Belfast physically based festival. In fact, we expect a quarter of our audience to come from outside Europe this year.

That means that Belfast really can be part of an international conversation on new ideas and politics and we can effectively share our stories with a global audience.

We hope our contributors can describe Belfast to that audience with a bit more imagination and offer a more nuanced view than has often been the case in the past. The festival certainly helps in facilitating a dynamic narrative of the changing city, allowing new voices to get a hearing.  Hopefully we can continue next year as the funding environment is likely to get even more difficult. But in the meantime, we’re going to have fun delivering this year’s festival next month and we hope your readers can join us in looking at the state we’re in.

See previous interview with Peter O’Neill here.

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