This blog is a guest blog written by Paul Connolly. Paul is the lead singer of NI band, The Wood Burning Savages. He is also heavily involved in community Arts education through his facilitation work all over Northern Ireland with Derry-based organisation the Nerve Centre.
This series of guest blogs is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
“Every time I have had a problem, I have confronted it with the axe of art.”
-Yayoi Kusama, contemporary artist
I grew up in an area of Derry situated right in the middle of the Bogside, Rosemount and Creggan housing estate. Working-class areas, then and still now marred by high unemployment, myriad substance abuse related issues and with the cyclically, tidal looming threat of paramilitarism.
Impervious to the trendy trainers' march of gentrification, but similarly by chronic, generation-spanning underfunding by people who never care to visit it but rather govern from (not too) afar, it feels insulated from economic progress too.
With a university that has also been strangled, subtracted from and diluted by political infractions over generations and a number of soul-sucking call-centres, like battery hen houses on the edge of town, that know they offer the only form of steady work in the Northwest, Derry is a town that has been failed by Stormont continually, repeatedly and at times sadly, it feels terminal. A look at the suicide figures among young people in Derry, among the highest in Western Europe, serves as a heart-stopping indicator of a generation failed.
I am lucky. Growing up, the Arts were my salvation. Learning how to paint, write poetry, use DJ decks in The Playhouse theatre at a young age at their summer schemes. Learning how to sing, write songs and perform them with new friends of a similar age in the Nerve Centre. This ran parallel with the opportunity of going to the endless Friday and Saturday night youth gigs in the Centre’s venue upstairs, where the ticket price was capped at a low entry fee; vitally opening the live music experience to under-18s of all backgrounds and economic situations in a safe and welcoming space.
From a young age and throughout my teenage years, I was acutely aware of how these experiences equipped me and my peers with problem-solving skills, a confidence and outlook on the world around us that cannot be taught or bought and a deep respect for the craft of those who showed us how to create and the works of theirs’ we were lucky to witness, be it in Derry’s galleries, theatre or music stages and spaces.
Throughout my twenties and now in my early thirties, I have dedicated myself to repaying my cultural debt by sharing the skills I learned (and still every day learn) through my work in the community teaching songwriting, event management and all manner of other skills on behalf of the Nerve Centre and other organisations from time to time too. The by-product of these new skills in young people is a sense of self-worth, civic pride and that invaluable forward-thinkingness and respect for those around them.
This is not a blog to pat myself on the back, far from it. This is my attempt at describing the transformative power that even small doses of the Arts can have in our most impoverished, socio-economically deprived areas, that stays with our participants for a lifetime.
Regardless of whether these young people choose to utilise these skills to pursue a career in the Arts, I will bet my favourite guitar that it equips them with an understanding of and a deep appreciation for the Arts around them, nationally and internationally too.
They will inherit the theatres, galleries and venues which each of us are tireless custodians of. They are the audiences of tomorrow. It is our duty to extend their invitation in a revolutionary and lifelong manner so that they too are acutely aware and mindful of this.
I sat recently in Belfast’s MAC Theatre and listened to representatives from most of the main NI parties lay out their commitment to the Arts. Being from Derry, I often have a chip on both my shoulders at how Belfast-centric the Arts can be mistakenly be viewed as being through the lens of our elected representatives, when we have so much more to offer across these counties that all too often gets overlooked.
My cynicism stayed with me for days afterwards and the Radiohead lyric ‘Say the right things when electioneering…I trust I can rely on your vote,’ wouldn’t leave my head.
There were big promises but no big ideas.
Nothing the likes of which I would like to propose here for our post COVID-19 cultural landscape. We in NI are the recipient of the lowest per person spend on the Arts and our exposure to it, this disgusts and infuriates me when we can see the ethically and morally indefensible levels of expenditure by some of our MPs; which we give them the pleasure of squandering.
Soapbox stepped off of and neatly stowed away. I would like to suggest the implementation of an Arts Pass card for those aged 16-24. These are formative years and the bringing about of a freedom to choose to regularly visit the theatre, an opera, a gallery, a gig, a gallery or museum for free has that same capacity to begin a lifelong friendship with the Arts where attendance becomes a habit and second nature rather a vague curiosity, if at all ever.
With the sad, lurching, rudderless motions of Brexit moving us further from the European ideals of a love and passion for bold creativity and the cultures of those around us, coupled with the historic fact of NI’s brain-drain of some of our most talented creatives moving through necessity rather than choice, an Arts Pass may be one of the pillars that help us prop up NI toward the world stage and display how truly vibrant, modern and vital its Arts scene and community truly are and will continue to strive to be.
Working in the Arts, specifically Arts education in the community, I have a rare vantage point where on one hand I see first hand the pride, confidence and that immediate removal of the fear of themmuns that working together on a creative project equips our young and impressionable people with. On the other hand I see the mounting barriers to this delivery and access to these experiences that years of cuts from successive conservative governments have wreaked.
It is the greatest privilege of my life to in a small way help steer these young minds into becoming members of a society that puts value on creative thinking, the power of kindness and of collective action towards common, fundamental goals.
If the Arts Pass were ever to be brought as a proposal to Stormont, where frankly so many big and community – benefitting ideas go to die, the cost would be the first wing to feel the arrows of MLAs who rarely step into our cultural spaces except perhaps for photo-ops. Wilde’s words ‘…the cost of everything and the value of nothing’ come to mind.
So much of our budget problems in NI stem from mismanaged, unspent or as we’ve seen time and time again, corrupted monies for concocted schemes that read like the names of a hundred terrible 90’s boy bands.
The Arts and by extension the Arts Pass I’m proposing is an equaliser, where the working class and well-heeled can unite in awe, escape and dream. The Arts are a medicine and a triage that remind us of our resilience, that we can tend our mental health in the same way we might a garden. The Arts remind us of our possession of free will and of our short time on the planet.
The Arts Pass is an investment in a future where the Arts are never in a position as we were at the start of the pandemic where we had to beg for support and be told to jettison from and industry and into another.
The Arts Pass is crucial investment in the mental wellbeing of a generation experiencing more change over the last two years than many of us have in a lifetime. It can be the democratisation of experiences that before would have been too costly for many families to give to their young people on a regular basis.
If we equip young people with a love of the Arts, along the way it will become their shield when they are low, their trophy when they celebrate and their harbour when they do not know where to go.
The Arts Pass is not one master key handed to all; it is a Swiss Army Knife that will help a generation whittle the world around them into a space for all.