BLOG 22nd November 2023

What does "free" mean for families wanting to experience culture in Northern Ireland?

This guest blog has been written by Sarah McAvera, the Deputy Director for Golden Thread Gallery. Since 2005, Sarah has worked at the gallery in diverse roles including project manager, curator and fundraiser. As part of her multifaceted role at the gallery, she is responsible for strategic planning, fundraising, management, stakeholder engagement, curating and mentoring. To date, Sarah has assisted hundreds of artists and aspiring arts professionals in progressing in their artistic careers.

Before I had children, I thought of myself as a culture omnivore. I went to galleries, music gigs (contemporary and classical), the theatre, comedy, cinema. I went to something most weeks: with friends, my husband, family and I was happy to try going to anything that anyone else fancied trying. The stakes weren’t high as I had plenty of time and mostly only had to pay for myself. If I didn’t like something it was entertaining to debate it and finding things that I didn’t know that I would like (like live comedy or music in a park) made me braver with my choices.

It never occurred to me that having children would change that, as it was part of who I was. At what point did I stop and why? I’ve thought about this a lot and narrowed it down to a few factors:

  1. I stopped living in Belfast and there simply weren’t the same level of activities available without making the two-hour round trip.
  2. Small children have big ideas about how they like to spend their time and not all venues are welcoming to children (even if they say that they are).
  3. A family of 5 doing anything is expensive (my children are 13, 10 and 3 and this is exacerbated by some venues counting my 13-year-old as an adult for pricing).
  4. Even activities that say that they’re free come with a cost.

I’m going to address my last point first as I think that it really is the crux of the problem for many people. Even events that are ‘free’ are not actually free to attend. There’s the cost of getting there. As an example, the round trip in petrol from my home to Belfast costs about £10, if I had to take the five of us on public transport, it would cost approximately £55. It’s an hour in the car, so even if we eat before we leave, the children will need something while we’re out.

This might sound a bit defeatist, so this year I set myself a challenge to find free or nearly free cultural things for me and my family to do. We’ve always gone to the art workshops at Golden Thread Gallery (disclaimer, it’s where I work) but this was trying to be more adventurous.

We went to the Chinese New Year event at the Ulster Hall (£3 per ticket and fine to bring in your own snacks). Parking £7, petrol £10, so a total cost of £32 plus snacks. A trip to the Downpatrick museum (7 miles from my home) was free entry and free parking close by, though we did end up going for ice-cream afterwards as everyone found the jail section a bit depressing. The Ulster Museum was free parking on a Saturday, £10 petrol, free in, though the intense pressure to donate £5 per person rather undermines the concept of free.

Last week I found myself at a free lunchtime concert at the Ulster Hall with the Ulster Orchestra. Lunchtime on a weekday meant it was me and a friend. It was wonderful! I had forgotten how you feel music through your body and the pieces (all about mountains) made me feel like I was marching up a mountain with one composer, awestruck viewing mountain peaks from another. The only downside was that the two hours would be inaccessible to anyone with strict work times. I’d love to introduce my children to the Ulster Orchestra but have only found two family friendly performances where tickets were up to £54 per person! Obviously not all cultural events need to be aimed at or accessible for families but hearing the orchestra for the first time in years I was transported to beyond the everyday moment. I was lucky enough to have been at school when anyone could play an instrument as both the instrument and the lessons were provided for free. My children haven’t been as lucky, and I would love to have shared it with them.

Finding all these activities took time: there is no central repository for free cultural activities (Visit Belfast has some for Belfast but not elsewhere), so you have to check all of the individual websites again and again and again. You also have to know about the organisations in order to look for them. Big hitters like the Ulster Museum don’t need an introduction, but for smaller organisations or for anyone new to Northern Ireland, it’s really hard to find out about them and you have to have the time and dedication to do so.

What would the ideal family activities look like? Free activities that are adaptable for different ages. A venue that has good toilet facilities. Free snacks. Information about transport and parking. Enthusiastic staff who seem genuinely pleased to have you there. These are all things that we have in place at the Golden Thread Gallery, because we choose to make them a priority.

Working in the arts myself, I know that we all want to make what we do more accessible, but with the scant resources that there are, it’s an uphill struggle. If we’re going to make culture a part of everyday life for everyone, then we need it to be easier to find out what resources are out there for little or no money. At the moment, it is the paid for activities from the big organisations with big marketing budgets that are easily seen. How do we make it that free cultural activities are promoted enough to make them truly accessible? I’m not sure, but that is why organisations like Thrive are so invaluable: we need to understand not just who our current audiences are, but who our audiences could be.

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