Ten Free Arts Activities in Belfast

Heather McGarrigle picks her top ten free arts and culture activities in Belfast, from a visit to The MAC to Culture Night 2013

To say that Belfast is buzzing with arts and culture at the moment is something of an understatement. What I particularly love is that much of it – much of the best of it, in fact – is completely free to enjoy.

An article like this wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Ulster Museum, but I also think it deserves its place at the top of this list. As well as the dinosaurs and mummies to enthral the kids (big and small), the museum houses a massive collection of art.

There are permanent exhibitions of fine art, sculpture and textiles – not to mention jewellery, costume, dolls and toys – and its galleries also play host to several exhibitions, such as the Seacourt Print Workshop's Deep Time, which is on display until September 29. The Ulster Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm and closed Mondays, except for Bank Holiday Mondays.

Belfast’s newest arts venue The MAC has public galleries open seven days a week, 10am to 7pm. Visitors are welcome to simply hang out, and there are seats, sofas and reading materials dotted around the place.

Their Family Room opened in June 2013, with books, games and toys available to enjoy, and there is a free kids’ story time between 11 and 11.45am on the first Sunday of every month. MAC Curator Hugh Mulholland also offers free curator tours, and the next takes place on September 18.

A few minutes’ walk away is the Oh Yeah Music Centre. This vibrant hub on the cobbles of Gordon Street contains the Northern Ireland Music Exhibition, packed full of information and memorabilia from the country's best-loved acts, past and present. It’s open Monday to Friday 11am to 4pm, Saturdays 12 to 5pm and 12 to 5pm on Sundays between March and the end of August.

Another Cathedral Quarter gem is Belfast Exposed at The Exchange Place on Donegall Street. Its gallery of contemporary photography features work from Northern Ireland and around the world. Opening hours are 11am to 4pm Tuesday to Saturday, with a massive digital archive available to browse free, without appointment, in the Exchange Gallery. A reading room is also available to use free of charge for research, but booking is essential.

In the heart of the city centre, another favourite of mine is SpaceCraft, the shop/gallery/exhibition space founded by the Craft and Design Collective. It’s tucked away on the first floor of the Fountain Centre on College Street, so go up that escalator for a real taste of Northern Ireland craftsmanship.

Nearby is the Linen Hall Library. As well as the famous Northern Ireland Political Collection, documenting the printed history of The Troubles, visitors and researchers can browse its vast collections of reference material. There are loads of free talks, readings and exhibitions on in the coming months, including Helen Heron's Field Work 1979, An Interpretation, inspired by the work of Seamus Heaney, which runs until September 30.

As well as a thriving city centre and Cathedral Quarter, other areas of Belfast are becoming better known for creative and cultural offerings. An Cultúrlann on the Falls Road uses arts and education to promote Irish culture in Belfast’s Gaeltacht area.

As well as hosting a selection of free classes, concerts and performances, the centre is also home to the Gerard Dillon Gallery, west Belfast’s only public gallery, which is also one of the many amazing venues that take part in Late Night Art on the first Thursday of every month.

On the other side of the city, under the auspices of the East Belfast Arts Festival, is the fourth annual Art in the Eastside exhibition, a public art exhibition that brightens up billboards on streets throughout the eastside, complemented by an exhibition in the Engine Room Gallery. Art in the Eastside runs until September 8, and features original work by a wealth of artists, including the piece shown above, by Clinton Kirkpatrick.

Northern Ireland boasting a rich literary history, it’s great to see poetry featuring on event programmes, and this year’s European Heritage Open Day on September 14 has, in its packed programme, some great free poetry events in Belfast. The Strand Cinema hosts Lights, Camera… Poetry, and the Purely Poetry open mic event takes place at the Crescent Arts Centre.

An ideal way to end is with Culture Night Belfast, promoting arts and culture in the city with six hours of free events, activities and performances on September 20 this year. Inspired by punters’ cries of 'Why can’t Belfast be like this all the time?', the CNB team have also launched CNB365, an exploration of how to bring Culture Night to Belfast every day. View their website for more information.