BLOG 19th December 2023

What is the value of arts and culture in Northern Ireland?

People often underestimate the power of arts and culture, and the impact it has on people’s lives. Why? It’s often the thing that gets cut first – in university curriculums, Arts Council budgets, and remember that UK government poster suggesting the ballet dancer retrain in cyber? It all fosters a feeling of arts and culture being something extra, not a priority. Sadly, Northern Ireland has the lowest government spend on arts and culture – just £5 per person, the lowest in the UK. The next highest spend is in Wales, which spends twice as much (£10/person), and the Republic of Ireland spends more than four times as much at roughly £21 per person.

But despite this, nearly everyone here engages in arts and culture, in some shape or form. From previous thrive research, we know that over 90% of people in Northern Ireland engage in arts and culture. That includes everything from attending a concert, to going to a gallery, to drawing a doodle, singing in their leisure time, or reading a book.

Last year, we ran a project for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland in 100 Stories. Our aim was to understand what arts and cultural engagement looked like – what did people do, where did they go, why did they do it, and what impact did it have on their lives? The thrive team spent the year travelling across each of the 11 council areas, conducting one-to-one interviews with local residents to hear about their relationship with arts and culture, in their own words.

Residents spoke, and we listened. The resounding consensus was that arts and culture are what gives life meaning. Hope. Inspiration. Arts and culture isn’t just a ‘nice to have.’ It has the power to save and transform lives.

Don’t believe me? Read on to see the select themes and quotes gathered from our research.

Arts and culture are embedded in people’s lives.

During our conversations with local residents, some people had a distinct idea of what arts and culture was, and thought that it wasn’t something they really engaged in. Some thought of it as things like ballet or opera, or spending a lot of money to see a concert in Belfast.

What we saw in reality was that nearly everyone engaged in arts and culture in some shape or form, without even realising it until they brought it up in conversation. We also saw that arts and culture was embedded in people’s lives – people spoke fondly about dancing in their kitchen, singing in their car, going for walks around historic buildings, or curling up with a book in bed.

"You think of art as like, sitting down and painting a picture. But it's so much more. Different wee events and stuff that my Daddy would have taken us to be creative. We would have made objects or butterflies or - I don't know - it was always art stuff. And it was really fun. It really helped us like bond as a family."

"If you use the word arts, people think, Oh, that's not for me. But actually, they might be involved in the arts, and they don't realise it, like a local pantomime."

“There are songs that make me want to dance. I'd jiggle about a wee bit you know, when I'm the kitchen you know.”

"music as I was saying earlier music is part of who I am, you know, it's part of my fibre."

Interest in arts and culture starts young

When we asked people to tell us about a time they first got interested in arts and culture, they often told us about a vivid memory from when they were a child. First memories often revolved around family influence – their parents or grandparents bringing them to a panto for the first time, parents encouraging them to perform on stage as a child, being taken to the cinema, or simply singing songs at home with their family. When they were telling us these stories, people’s faces instantly lit up, and they could recall even the most minute details of their experience – what they wore, the colour of the bus they took, the food they ate. We cannot underestimate the value of introducing arts and culture to children, because it can spark a lifetime of appreciation.

"The Nutcracker came to Belfast and I went with my granda. I still remember that as well even though I was like seven."

“And I remember as at a young age, singing Over The Rainbow. I remember dancing to Andy Gordy. And during the tap dancing and all the actions I still remember some. And I still remember how that makes me feel. To know, I enjoyed it so much. I got so much out of it.”

"I think it's an amazing way to bring young people up. It could be any art form...Even if you don't become a professional artist. It teaches life."

"There was a cinema in Moneyreagh. It was a small building the big market. And our primary school went to it. We saw Laurel and Hardy. It was the first time we've ever seen anything, it was incredible."

"I remember is going to see a film called Oliver which came out in about 1967 or 68. And I went with my mum on a bus. I remember I was very tiny. I was about five. And we went into Birmingham. And I remember it this so well. And it was the most amazing thing I ever saw…it was going to see that it had a profound effect on me. I was just, I saw these children acting and I thought, Gosh, this is amazing. And I just loved the story, it inspired me to read the book. And I loved it."

Arts and culture serves as a social glue, bonding people and fostering social connections

People often told us about how arts and culture has the power to bring people together– friends, family, and strangers alike – for a common interest. You could see it in their faces when they spoke – people excitedly told us how going to arts and cultural things helped them feel less alone and gave them opportunities to create new friendships and feel more connected to their community. Those who participated in arts and culture also loved the community feeling of people coming together for a shared purpose of creating something special.

“I also think it brings people together. You've a common interest. You meet someone for the first time, you don't know to talk about: 'What's your favourite group?'’

“The most important thing is the connection. In the MAC, I can walk in there and there’ll be somebody I know, somebody I can chat to…What sort of life would it be without connection?"

“I remember in the school library, flicking through an art book and seeing the art work of David Hockney. And just knowing that I wasn't alone…that there was somebody out there that spoke my language for want of a better way. And that really resonated with me.”

“I think without arts, I wouldn't probably have such a sense of community in Belfast. I wouldn't have nearly as many interests to share with my partner I would definitely not have as good a social life and the world would be a lot uglier.”

“In theatre you've just more of a unit. Nearly like a family - like coming together to make this thing. You work so intensely together for such a long period of time, and you really want this thing to work and for people to enjoy it.”

Participating in arts and culture not only gives people skills and confidence, it has the power to transform lives

In all council areas, residents told us that participating in the arts has helped them uncover skills, talents, and passions that they often didn’t know they had. Whether it was through acting, singing, or creating in general, people were blown away with how much the arts have impacted their lives. We’ve heard stories about how the arts were a tool that opened their eyes to new talents they never knew they had, bringing them out of their shell and empowering them to find their own voice. Arts and culture also gave people transferrable skills, and the courage and confidence to try new things and open themselves up to new experiences. Ultimately, it helped contribute to their identity.

“I had all of the skill and didn't know it for many years. Especially reading to the kids, which I really love. And you know I think a lot of people would have skills maybe they don't even know they have until they try things. So it's always good to get out of your comfort zone and give things a try.”

“And I was the sort of the weak one that didn't really have a voice. So yeah, being able to...I think drama, gave me a voice and gave me that confidence.”

“I think what happens with school is, you know, I see the kids learn about photosynthesis, about the respiratory system, and then I see them playing the clarinet or I see them dancing, or I see them get a drum solo. It just - it blows me away that I think ‘this child here struggles so much in one area, and we have to get a chance to enjoy it on stage’, and I can see their confidence up, you know, really.”

“You see young kids who, who first time on stage, and they came to rehearsals and they are nervous and quiet. And at the end, you have a different human being.”

“That's what the arts does. It allows you to find yourself.”

“I wouldn't be me. And I just can't imagine my life without it or the contribution it made to my life or to me as a character and my personality.”

Arts and culture isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ – it saves people from their own mental health

The vast majority of residents we talked to spoke about how important arts and culture was to their mental health. This ranged from being a bright spot in their life, helping them to look forward to exciting events, to being a lifeline that saved them from the brink of depression. This theme was especially pronounced considering that our interviews happened just two years after the start of Covid, when people were still feeling the isolating effects of lockdown.

“Dancing sort of ticks several of these boxes for it one activity, so I did it sort of like almost as a prescription like I prescribed it as my, you know, how I'm gonna get myself better from depression. And it was great because it's something that you can do on your own.”

“[On teaching an art class] It's so therapeutic for other people to come in here. You actually see people's shoulders going down, like they're releasing something.”

“My lifeline for me personally, was my own art, and the creativity of others.”

“It kept me sane during the Troubles, actually kept a lot of people sane. I mean, during the Troubles, those sessions were like an oasis in the desert. And they were cross community as well. So musicians took a big risk, actually planning music from the community. It wasn't popular then and they might have even gotten killed.”

“Going back to the bereavement - it was actually after a relative committed suicide. It was a really, really terrible time in all our family's life, but to have that art therapy really helped me, it definitely helped the recovery. Sometimes you can't identify the actual tangible impact [of the arts]. But I think that the impact is genuine in terms of health, in terms of mental health.”

“I was like, 'Okay, this [theatre] is actually my passion'. It's more than just an escape. It's more than happiness. It's literally what I need to thrive doing’”

“I just don't I don't think I would be here without it. Honestly. I don't think I would like because I think it helps me connect with the greater human race”

“I was just eighteen. It was after the whole crash and stuff that I was kind of in this motion of: I don't need to do it anymore. Nobody needs me there anymore. And someone was recording a charity single and desperately needed another voice. And I was like, it's an afternoon of my time, and I went to the studio and I got the music and I started singing it and they were mixing it. And it was like someone lit a flame under me and reminded me that I was not born to sit doing very basic things.”

For more information about our Northern Ireland in 100 Stories project, check out our resources here which includes snapshots by council area, our digital booklet and our full list of participant quotes.

Laura Cusick

Research Analyst

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