Trying to make waves on the Waterfront

Belfast's cultural authorities want landmark buildings - they just don’t know what to put in them.

Pauline Hadaway

Topics Politics

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The Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) officially opens on 26 November 2004, five years after the Lottery Millennium Commission controversially voted down Zaha Hadid’s ambitiously conceived Opera House for Cardiff Bay, in favour of a smaller scale, more inclusive ‘cultural centre’.

As well as providing a permanent base for the Welsh National Opera, the new non-elitist WMC accommodates a theatre company, Welsh language agency, ‘interactive arts museum’, shops, offices and even a 150-bed youth hostel. However, for a building boasting a £106million price tag, the centre’s opening season, which includes the Welsh comedian and singer Max Boyce, ‘a gala evening of traditional Christmas music’, and ‘Sleeping Beauty on Ice’, suggests serious underinvestment in programming. The focus is on getting bums on seats, rather than artistic excellence or experimentation.

Like the WMC, Belfast’s Waterfront Hall was a flagship development, symbolising the use of art and culture in urban regeneration, and demonstrating the region’s ambition. Completed in 1997 at a cost of £32million, the Waterfront remains one of few contemporary public buildings of distinction in Northern Ireland. The Waterfront Hall was the jewel in the crown of Laganside Corporation’s riverside regeneration, itself a legacy of Britain’s ‘economic and social war’ against the IRA (1). Elegantly structured in chrome and glass, the hall can be seen as a statement of hope and defiance in a city emerging from decades of relentless bombing.

Following the restoration of the IRA ceasefire in 1997, as confrontational approaches softened towards resolution and dialogue, so urban regeneration initiatives became smaller scale, more culturally sensitive and community-orientated. Throughout the late 1990s Laganside’s strategy for urban renewal through the promotion of art and culture led to the creation of public art trails, cycle paths and walkways along the riverside, and more recently to attempts at developing a ‘vibrant cultural quarter’ in the run-down streets around St Ann’s Cathedral.

In the wake of New Labour’s 1997 election victory, it defined one of the key values of art and culture as ‘their ability to provide ways for the people to come together to express their belief in participation in society’ (2). Similar views have been expressed in Northern Ireland in the context of concerns with ‘sustaining the peace’, often agreed upon by otherwise implacable political enemies in Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

For some, this emphasis on the instrumental rather than intrinsic value of art evidences a weakening of artistic and institutional authority. But since the late 1980s, arguments supporting culture as a ‘catalyst for urban renewal’ have proved more profitable than traditional appeals to aesthetic judgement, private satisfactions or spiritual benefit.

The first wave of instrumentalism saw the creation of spectacular new or renovated galleries, such as London’s Tate Modern, the Lowry Centre on Salford Quays in Manchester, and Tyneside’s Baltic Flour Mill. Attracting huge public interest, these cultural flagships won millions in Lottery funding as well as political endorsement as ‘significant factors in generating inspiration, self-confidence, debate or ideas exchange, as well as the creation of a city’s image’ (3).

The idea that cultural policies should deliver social and economic benefits expresses a new kind of political intervention in arts institutions. In the past, this kind of politicisation might have given rise to fears of censorship and control. But in the current climate, as political assertion increasingly gives way to exhaustion, the main problem facing the arts is lack of direction arising from their abandonment of any idea of intrinsic purpose.

These uncertainties can be read in the programming of former cultural flagships such as the Waterfront and WMC, which try desperately to prove their community, populist and non-elitist credentials, while somehow also projecting an international image worthy of regional capitals of culture. Boasting an international reputation as a ‘world-class conference centre’, the Waterfront Hall, like the WMC, is lukewarm when it comes to programming. With Daniel O’Donnell, Roy Chubby Brown and ‘a family evening of Christmas music’ on the bill this winter, certainly nobody could call it elitist.

Following the collapse of Northern Ireland’s regional assembly, Belfast’s ambition to develop a vibrant cultural quarter is rapidly losing momentum. Responding to criticisms of poor cultural infrastructure in the wake of the city’s failure to be short-listed for the European Capital of Culture, the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure is currently considering a proposal for an arts centre, in the hope of reigniting interest in its cultural quarter development plan.

Comprising gallery, theatre, studios and rehearsal space, the centre will be accessible to artists, communities and the general public, while supporting economic regeneration, cultural tourism and good community relations. With between £23million and £27million potentially ring fenced towards capital costs, the idea of housing the new centre in a ‘landmark’ building has been floated. The city’s arts and cultural sector are showing little enthusiasm for this latest project, and any question of what the arts centre might actually programme remains vague.

Belfast suffers from a dearth of museums and galleries, and lacks a cultural centre of gravity, yet it remains a curious and intriguing city, in which some interesting art is being made and shown. Unfortunately if you are not in the know, much of Belfast’s cultural life will remain invisible, confined to small, under-resourced artist-led studios and galleries dotted around the city’s fringes and interfaces. Even a modest increase in programming subsidy would make a substantial difference to artists and audiences – but for policymakers, any idea of support for actual exhibitions, publications or commissions is simply off the radar.

In policy terms, Belfast stands at the end of a long line of succession, where central government cultural strategies arrive on desks in City Hall, to be implemented if not entirely understood. In a climate of political exhaustion, maybe it’s time that arts institutions asserted the value of their work, and led policymakers back towards an acknowledgement of art as a purposeful activity in its own right?

Pauline Hadaway has worked as an arts administrator since 1990, in Newcastle upon Tyne and Belfast, and is currently director of Belfast Exposed Gallery of Photography. Belfast Exposed focuses on the development and exhibition of contemporary photography, portraying social and political ideas from local perspectives.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) Battling for Peace, R Needham (1998) Blackstaff, Belfast

(2) Creative Britain, Chris Smith, Faber & Faber, 1998

(3) The Creative City: a Toolkit for Urban Innovations, C Landry, (2000) London, Comedia; Earthscan Publications

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Topics Politics


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