Belfast Goes Out To Lunch in 2015

Festival director Sean Kelly on making the arts accessible to all despite impending funding cuts

It's January. The party’s over, and it’s time for belt-tightening and a careful battening down of the financial hatches. Not exactly an ideal time of year to hold an arts festival, is it?

Try telling that to Sean Kelly. For a decade now, Kelly has been dispelling the New Year doldrums with his Out To Lunch arts festival at the Black Box in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, which runs from January 2 – 25.

The formula is clever, and enticing: a warm location to unwind in for an hour, a bowl of something hot to fill you, and a spot of entertainment to lift the January spirits. It’s a winning combination, which often sees the Black Box packed to capacity with hungry revellers.

Out to Lunch celebrates its tenth birthday in 2015, and Sean Kelly’s appetite for organising the festival has in no way diminished. ‘I can safely say that after ten years I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for doing it,' he confirms. 'I still get a real buzz from bringing exceptional artists to Belfast and putting them with a crowd who are really up for it. Very few things in life are more gratifying.’

Over 40 events are listed for the 2015 festival, and getting them all together into a marketable package is an act of considerable logistic ingenuity. How does Kelly go about deciding who to book, and what will go down well with Black Box audiences?

‘I see myself as someone with an Everyman approach to the arts. I like a wide range of music, I like theatre and comedy and film. My background’s in literature, and I’ve always kept on top of trends there. These are things that a lot of us would engage in, and I wouldn’t consider myself any more cultured than anybody else.

‘But I’m in the very privileged position of spending a lot of my working life researching music, theatre and comedy, and obviously the digital world we live in has made so much more of that accessible to us now. You start to build up a picture of where the best films are coming out of, or who’s put out the best world music album this year. You just keep your cultural antennae open.’

Out To Lunch 2015 has Kelly’s discernment and catholicity of taste written all over it, with visits scheduled from legendary soulman Booker T Jones, quirky comedian John Shuttleworth, evergreen country plucker Hank Wangford, and a unique collaboration between writer Patrick McCabe and acclaimed singer-songwriter Colum Sands.

Add talks, poetry, a string quartet recital, a concert by NI Opera’s Young Artists, a DJ set from Mr Scruff, shows based on the music of Kate Bush, Édith Piaf and Joni Mitchell, and special screenings of John Huston’s Joyce film The Dead and Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Nowhere is Home, and you have a programme that might genuinely be said to have something for virtually everyone, and cover all artistic bases.

Out To Lunch was Kelly’s own idea, and was born from its parent event, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, which happens annually in May and has been going five years longer. ‘I borrowed elements of it from other places,’ Kelly remembers.

‘I was in Glasgow and saw a poster for a venue called the Òran Mór, which has a concept called ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint'. That to me was quite a novel and almost revolutionary idea, lunchtime shows that combined food, drink and a theatre show.

‘There was no tradition in Belfast of doing lunchtime arts events really. It struck me as quite an obvious idea, and I wondered why people hadn’t done it before. It kind of captured people’s imaginations almost immediately.’

Explaining the interest that Out To Lunch engendered from the outset is, says Kelly, not difficult. ‘There’s a lot of people who work in Belfast city centre, but they might live in outlying towns like Lisburn, Bangor, Downpatrick. They want to support the arts, but by the time they’ve got home, it takes a lot of effort and money to come back into town for a show.

‘If you can offer somebody a 45-minute show that they can catch in their lunch hour, they can feel good about having supported the arts, done their bit, and go home again in the evening. Everyone’s a winner there, so we immediately struck a connection with workers in the city.’

Retired people are, adds Kelly, also an important part of the Out To Lunch demographic. ‘We’ve got a lot of people who again come from outlying towns, get a free bus or train into the city, get a show and a nice hot lunch for £6.50, and a free bus home again. They think it’s the greatest invention ever.’

You don’t get much for £6.50 nowadays, and Kelly concedes that keeping prices at bargain-basement levels – a key component in Out To Lunch’s easy-access mission statement – is becoming ever more difficult.

‘It’s been a big challenge, and it’s one that was manageable right up to the current situation.’ By ‘current situation’ Kelly means, of course, the cuts fever that is currently afflicting the arts in Northern Ireland, with further reductions in budget threatened for the immediate and longterm future. These worry Kelly deeply.

‘I hate making these empty threats almost, but I have to say that next year’s festival is very much in jeopardy. The Out To Lunch business model can only really exist with a bit of public funding. Our funders are the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Tourist Board, and the Department for Social Development, and all of those are issuing pretty dire warnings at the minute.’

Kelly is acutely aware that asking for money to support culture and the arts can seem almost impertinent, when so many vital, life-sustaining public services are also threatened by reduced funding provision.

‘I get a wee bit uncomfortable making the case for the arts when I look around and see the health service being decimated, university places being chopped, and libraries having their opening hours reduced,' he admits. 'To me all those things are unthinkable.’

Equally unthinkable for Kelly, though – and the many thousands of people who regularly take part in and benefit from the arts in Northern Ireland – is that local politicians should shrink from the challenge of raising arts provision in Northern Ireland to the level enjoyed by the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

‘There’s been a historical disparity between investment in the arts in Northern Ireland and our neighbours down south and across the water,' Kelly explains. 'The spend is currently 13 pence per head per week here. Wales, for instance, is 26 pence per head, Scotland is considerably more. The per capita spend has always been low here, and it’s about to get considerably worse.’

For now, though, it’s business as usual – with, perhaps, a modicum more gloominess to dissipate than usual for Kelly’s Out To Lunchers, and the excellent catering team at his Black Box headquarters.

Kelly is, he says, ‘totally excited’ about this year’s festival. ‘It’s been a challenging year financially, but I think we’ve managed to pull off some daring coups, and shows that would befit a much larger festival. To have Booker T Jones playing in a venue the size of the Black Box is off the scale.’

Out To Lunch runs in the Black Box, Belfast from January 2 – 25.