Whose culture, whose Cathedral Quarter?
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Top: street in Cathedral Quarter 
Photo: Stuart L. Crawford

Middle: Sean Kelly
Photo: John Bauchan

Bottom: view of St Anne's Square from the site of the new MAC arts centre. 

Whose culture, whose Cathedral Quarter?

Over the past fifteen years, Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter has developed as a cultural centre, supporting diverse arts organisations in its redbrick warehouses and cobbled alleys. With possible redevelopment as a shopping and tourist district looming, questions about the area’s future come sharply into focus, along with problematic issues of cultural identity.

“Excuse me, where can we find the Cathedral Quarter?” The truth: no one has mapped out the streets of the quarter with any precision. Suffice to say, you’ll know when you’re there.

Named after St. Anne’s Cathedral at its heart, the Cathedral Quarter is the birthplace of Belfast, its street patterns discernible from seventeenth century maps. Extending south and east from the junction of Royal Avenue, Donegall Street and York Street, it stretches out to meet the city’s Merchant Quarter.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its four corners’ junction marked the centre of the city, all distances measured from that point. As the city grew from linen and shipbuilding industries, banks began to cluster around the area. Milliners, tailors, estate agents, stationers and solicitors traded from the cobbled streets, making this the centre of commerce in Northern Ireland and beyond.

The quarter declined enormously in the last century. The Blitz left huge craters, wiping out the Belfast Newsletter building on Bridge Street. During the Troubles, it sustained damage from bombs left at the edge of the city in the dead of night. Some of the most historic buildings in Belfast survived - Sir Charles Brett described the national bank as rearing its five proud storeys over a sea of debris - and the area’s distinctive character remained. Today, the quarter is characterised by red brick warehouse buildings and intimate cobbled alleys, and was named a conservation area in 1990.

When playwright Martin Lynch took Dick Mackenzie, a town-planning administrator, to Waring Street in the early 1990s and declared it the city’s new cultural hub, Mackenzie gave the prospect little credence. Lynch had predicted the future. He started a community arts forum in the old North Street Arcade, which was shabby, but it had a roof. Northern Visions Television, The Safehouse Arts Gallery and Belfast Print Workshop followed suit. All elements began to coalesce organically, to become the beginnings of what is now growing into a cultural quarter.

Government agencies such as Belfast City Council have been keen to capitalise on the area’s newfound charisma in terms of tourism, offering an alternative vision of Belfast from the prevailing image of war. Artistic vibrancy can bring economic resurgence: packed theatres mean more foot fall in the city, filling hotel rooms and restaurants with visitors from all over the world.

The intention of government agencies to formalise and package the arts into something that can be easily consumed by the cultural tourist might be unpalatable to some artists, but over the years, arts advocates have emphasised that the public value of the arts lies in their contribution to wider social and economic goals. However, that’s not the only problem with defining Belfast as a cultural brand. Leveraging Belfast’s cultural heritage to attract tourists from Ireland and beyond isn’t an effortless enterprise, but one that could potentially threaten the future of the quarter. It comes with baggage a century old and an argument over whose culture it is anyway. Whose Belfast is represented in the plays, music and arts we show to our visitors?

Laganside Corporation was given a remit in the early 2000s to redevelop the Cathedral Quarter. They lifted and re-laid the cobbled stones, widened some of the small streets and introduced subsidized managed workspaces into which artists began to move. They granted a small amount of money to the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, run by Sean Kelly.

ITMSeanKelly-2-.jpgIn a city where theatre and the arts have been seen as a South Belfast, middle-class pursuit, a festival that was accessible to the general public created a buzz in the quarter. “We wanted to take art out of art galleries and plays out of theatres,” says Kelly. “We put plays in pubs and readings in coffee shops. We approached the arts in a fresher and edgier way.” The festival has been growing incrementally and now boasts 120 events over eleven nights in May. “We want our programme to be enjoyed first and foremost by the people of Belfast. If we have a product that is enjoyed by the people of this city, then inevitably people will come from further afield.”

Kelly says that Belfast City Council is beginning to realise, if a little belatedly, that there is something in the idea of “cultural tourism”. “I’m detecting a softening of attitudes towards the arts,” he says, “but not because they think the arts are good in themselves.”

In the wake of Belfast’s failure to be shortlisted for UK City of Culture 2008, the Department for Social Development answered a call for dedicated management of the area and invested in setting up a steering group to help build on the hard work and energy invested in the bid. The group exhibited the necessary diversity to make the Cathedral Quarter distinctively mixed-use, with a focus on the arts. There were representatives from local business, government and the arts. Their mission: to support the pre-existing synergy of the quarter and to sustain the concentration of creative and cultural activity, striving to animate the streets and ensure that the infrastructure supported a growing community of artists.

The Cathedral Quarter is relatively without political attachment or affiliation, as part of the city centre. Having fallen off the radar for a significant time, it is now back on the map and up for grabs by political and cultural factions. Arts organisers suggest that politicians will tear the city centre apart to make it appear that they are delivering something in their own voting constituencies, threatening what could be a positive future for the Cathedral Quarter, and thus, Belfast. There is little sense of the common good.

What is our culture? That’s the question that’s been hampering the cathedral quarter’s artistic output. Patricia Friedman, cathedral quarter development manager and organiser of the Culture Night initiative on the 24th September, says it can be extremely difficult to keep everyone happy. If she facilitates an Irish language event, she must also cater to Ulster-Scots. Divided communities mean very different attitudes towards what constitutes “Brand Belfast”.

Indeed, Culture Night 2010 nearly didn’t happen. Among a plethora of community arts, photography exhibitions, open houses and concerts, one culture night event addressed that fact. MCE Public Relations hosted an event that brought together representatives from government and the arts to discuss our cultural framework and the future of Belfast’s artists. Among the speakers were playwright Martin Lynch, and Tim Loane, playwright, screenwriter, and co-founder of Tinderbox theatre company. Paul McErlean of MCE opened the evening’s discussion by saying, “the plans for tonight originated in the splendour of our city hall, where a political row that erupted over whose culture would be represented on culture night had the potential to derail or at least very badly damage this entire night. Thankfully, sense prevailed.”

Bickering amongst oppositional parties is not the only issue threatening the future of the Cathedral Quarter as Belfast’s new cultural hub. The funding for managed workspaces is under review and the Black Box, a small arts venue on Hill Street, may be forced to close its doors due to lack of financial support. The venue, opened in 2006, was created as an interim measure until the new Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) at St. Anne’s Square would open in 2011. It was granted government funding on the basis that it would fulfil cultural infrastructural needs in the Cathedral Quarter. Since then, it has become Belfast’s most edgy arts centre, programming music, theatre, comedy, circus, and cabaret every night of the week. It is now home to most of the Belfast festivals, including the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast Film Festival and Open House Festival.

ITMviewMAC-1-.jpgThe impending arrival of the MAC means that funding for the Black Box will cease in 2012. Having become a vital asset to the success of the Cathedral Quarter, it will now struggle to survive despite being eighty three per cent self-funded. Anne McReynolds, chief executive of the MAC, fears that the new centre will be seen as the venue that puts the Black Box out of business. “The MAC will never support the closure of any arts organisations,” she says. “It’s in our best interests to have as much cultural activity as possible. We are all complementary.”

The MAC will include two theatres, three major visual art galleries, a dance studio, educational, workshop and rehearsal spaces, offices for resident arts groups, a cafĂ© and bar. Its role in the cultural tourism strategy is to provide a linchpin venue that will help regenerate the area and support other small arts organisations. “The [City] Council fully understands and embraces the fact that Northern Ireland does not have an industrial base," says Anne McReynolds. "It does not have merchandising or industry. The only thing we have is tourism. It’s simply about putting on the right programme to attract visitors, a programme that speaks about Northern Ireland and what it is that we do here.”

Arts organisations express concern about the Royal Exchange, a planned regeneration scheme that is set to revamp twelve acres around Royal Avenue, Donegall Street and North Street. Retail led, it will include a new anchor department store, shops, cafes, restaurants, a hotel and car park. The artistic community fears the loss of the area’s historic character and an influx of consumer enterprise. The vast majority of retail units proposed are large and suitable only for multi-national chain stores. The dearth of small, affordable units in the scheme may force out indigenous businesses that have given Cathedral Quarter its distinctive character and appeal. Community Arts Forum released a series of banner advertisements relaying the message “Say No to Car Park Quarter”, and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society continues to campaign against the loss of historic buildings. The Cathedral Quarter steering group intends to submit an alternative proposal to planners in the coming weeks.

Now that funding for the arts is tight, Tim Loane asserts, we need to rationalise radically. “Our culture was defined by painters, poets and playwrights. Now it is run by politicians, civil servants and spin-doctors. We can still be proud of our people, but the city itself has become a monument to consumerism, a podium for profit, and a graveyard for our cultural heart.”

“Before the recession I thought this area would explode and that property developers would be crawling all over it,” says Sean Kelly. The recession has actually kept a check on that kind of activity, it has kept a lid on the massive over-development of the area.” Anne McReynolds agrees: “it’s given us some time to consolidate our position here. There’s an unbelievable spirit and commitment to the Cathedral Quarter that’s quite palpable. People care passionately about its future."

Kathy Clarke is an arts journalist based in Belfast.

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