Culture Night Belfast

Press officer Joe Nawaz on putting it all together, and watching the end result

As publicist for this merry venture over the past two years, the battle to win over hearts and minds has been waged on many fronts. The fact is, however, that factoids and figures can never quite capture the true thrill of being right in the heart of your home city, when you ask yourself: why can't it be like this 313 days of the year. I’ll grant you Sundays off – we’re supposedly a pious lot after all.

Culture Night, Culture Night: so good I’ve named it twice. This was the second Culture Night for the city of Belfast, following up on last year’s success. According to the official schtick, 15,000 people passed through the Cathedral Quarter on that enchanted autumn evening.

From my somewhat skewed view, the huge success of 2009’s Culture Night Belfast produced several interesting outcomes: One – that in spite of some awesome success-to-budget-ratio, funding for this year’s repeat performance was by no means guaranteed. In fact, it came through extremely late in the day, causing a period of what’s known in the vernacular as 'squeaky bum time' for all concerned.

Two – It showed what the force of will of one individual, with the support of an entire community can achieve. I’m not referring to the monorchid Austrian despot with the moustache, but the absolutely testicle-free principle organiser Kresanna Aigner. The 'community' in question, the Cathedral Quarter.

Watching more or less from the foothills, but close enough to have a decent view, I saw how Kresanna, with sterling and refreshingly pro-active support from the Culture Night Committee, brought together a unity of purpose amongst disparate interests. Through a little light insanity, sheer bloody mindedness and a flash of brilliance here and there, Kresanna and Co managed to provide a framework for everybody with a stake in the arts in Belfast to recognise and collectivise, rather than compete.

So, how to improve on last year? Simple. Bring in a development manager, the redoubtable Louise McIlvenna, to bolster the team and spread Culture Night out into what are euphemistically known as 'partnering communities' in north, south, east and west of the city, not to mention the soon to be tourist Shangri-La that is the Titanic Quarter.

I was taken on once more as press officer to cheerfully tell all and sundry that Culture Night Belfast would be 'back, bigger and better than last year' and whisper conspiratorially to any hack that hadn’t hung up already that there would be 'something for everyone'.

Awareness of the Culture Night ‘brand’ had clearly filtered through to many who were keen to contribute. It was in marked contrast to this time last year; I guess it’s understandable that anything unproved will be approached with wariness at the start.

It was edifying to see Derry booting up their own Culture Night this year for the first time. The slight Cinderella feel of being the only northern participant of a franchise that takes place in 20 regions and towns in the Republic of Ireland was diminished slightly as a result. Speaking to organisers there, they had a ball putting together a packed programme that John the Baptist-like, will herald the way for their stint as UK Cultural Capital in 2013.

With the impending funding bloodbath in the arts and organisations being perhaps forced to turn on each other for the ever diminishing scraps, Culture Night Belfast (a total snip incidentally) was and is a sweet and timely reminder that there is more power in the collective than there is fighting the battle alone. It’s a model of arts-led cooperation and cost-effectiveness.

And maybe even business will begin to see that the simple equation: footfall = profits. They should have got the message – I issued a press release about it after all. And with towns like Armagh starting to twitch with interest at the notion of hosting their own variant, the potential for Culture Night to take on an Island-wide cohesiveness is a rather titillating prospect.

As for me – I felt my job was truly done when I arranged for Maggie Taggart to belly dance for the television cameras. Needless to say, Culture Night 2010 was bigger and better than before and had literally something for everyone, but don’t just take my word for it. Press play and watch the video...