Ulster Festival of Art & design

Students at the University of Ulster's York Street Campus exhibit work in photography, fashion, architecture and more alongside invited artists from around the world

In the beginning, there was the end of year public show for the graduates of the University of Ulster’s College of Art. It was the summer sign-off, the students' best work on display for a ready made audience of parents, potential employers and lovers of new work. The Ulster Festival of Art & Design had its place in the university’s calendar. Then came the change.

'We realised after a time that while the rationale was sound and we were programming it with good top drawer artists, we were missing a great trick because at that stage most of the students were gone and not getting the full benefit of the opportunity,' says Tim Kerr, director of the festival now into its eighth year.

'So, a few years ago, we moved it back to March to avoid the end of term fatigue for students and staff. The majority of lecturing staff won’t lecture this week. They tell students to go to everything that is on.'

The Ulster Festival of Art & Design, which this year runs from March 9-14 and takes place during the nationwide Creativity Month, is the only festival of its type in Ireland and brings together a variety of international participants amid the work of students of photography, ceramics, architecture, fashion, painting and textile.

'We try to bring people with new progressive thinking and contemporary perspectives on art and design,' explains Kerr of the invited artists. 'People who are really pushing things forward in an adventurous and thought provoking way. That is very stimulating and inspiring. It is very motivating when you see work that is being done on a global scale by people like Future City who are shaping public art and buildings around the world.'

Also coming to Belfast for the festival are representatives of Graphic Thought Facility, a design consultancy renowned for its work with Google, Adidas and Channel Four. For anyone interested in visiting the University of Ulster's York Street campus during the festival, Kerr is quick to add that none of the exhibited work is overly academic, and that all are welcome and should find something of value.

'What we don’t let guests do is go into high technical, scholarly, academic stuff. It is completely accessible for people to go and enjoy.'

Students, meanwhile, are encouraged to see as much of the work on display as they possibly can. 'The creative path cuts across everything,' says Kerr. 'Students cross over from one thing to the next. You might see an architecture student going to a talk on fashion design and getting inspiration from that.'

This year’s festival will share some joint projects with the Belfast Children’s Festival. One of the main events, for example, features a day examining literature, reading and illustration in children’s books.

A panel including Axel Scheffler of Gruffalo fame, David Lucas, famous for titles such as The Skeleton Pirate and Cake Girl, and Bruce Ingman, who has just completed a book about the history of the Tate galleries titled Mr Tate, will be present to discuss their work and ideas. Kerr regards this collaboration with the Belfast Children’s Festival as being beneficial to both audiences. 

'The day session is part of an industry day for adults, who work in the sphere of young people and children’s art. It is about how authors, facilitators, tutors, writers actually present literature to young people and how to encourage children to read more.'

Kerr points out that an exciting development within the festival in recent years has been the experimentation and collaboration between art disciplines. 'We realised early on that since there is no performance in art and design, we had to be creative and inventive in going beyond people simply delivering lectures or talks.

'Last year contemporary dancer David Ogle collaborated with Kevin Killen, who works in neon. In darkness, David choreographed a movement piece that was traced by lights. These tracings were copied on to computer by Kevin. Traces and colours were then made into a huge neon installation piece that will be in the university gallery. David has devised a performance piece that sits with it.'

This year, for the first time, the Belfast International Festival of Performance Art will sit under the umbrella of the main art and design festival.

'This is a really specialist, challenging area, which is being programmed by my colleague, Brian Connolly,' says Kerr. 'We have artists coming from all over the world to be part of it and it really is making a name for itself. There aren’t really many outlets for this kind of work.'

Kerr – who heads up what he describes as a modest, small organisational team – believes that part of their role is to also highlight how the University of Ulster has become a creative and innovative centre of excellence.

'The characteristics and personality of each campus is determined by what is studied there. At Magee College [in Derry] the students create brilliant music and theatre that no one gets to see. The idea is that down the line we have a festival of performance art at Magee. We are looking at going down the literature route at Coleraine, and we’ll continue to have the festival of art and design in Belfast.'

A recent academic research evaluation showed that the Belfast School of Art came out higher in the rankings than University College, London's Slade School of Fine Art, and that it remains one of the top three art colleges in the UK. Kerr considers why this is.

'When tuition fees were introduced there was a fear that the intake would dip because of concerns about long term job prospects, but the reverse has happened. We are oversubscribed across all the courses in the BSA.  People are determining careers not by what their ancestors and family have done, but being driven by where they see their potential and passion and creativity going.'

As Belfast prepares for another festival of art and design, there is confidence among staff and students that its international reputation will continue to grow.

'We still have a way to go with establishing the festival as instantly recognisable,' Kerr admits. 'The chairman of the London Design Festival once told us that it wasn’t until about year eight or nine that his friends stopped asking him, "Are you going to do that again next year?" Now, it’s huge. We have a few years to run yet with Belfast but it’s edging its way in that direction.'