• Moya Sweeney

"More than an Arts Centre" - The Duncairn Interview

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

The adaptation and modification of arts venues has been nothing short of miraculous, creating events to breathe new life into the thriving online scene. The lack of in-person performances have shown the public's desire for concerts, plays and recitals. As many venues have organised a virtual programme, The Duncairn in Belfast is no different, strengthening the sector through screens around the country. I spoke with Creative Director Ray Giffen, on how their venue has reshaped events to continue their vital work in a digital world.

The Duncairn Centre for Culture and Arts, courtesy of The Duncairn website

How has your venue been affected due to the Covid-19 restrictions? Concerts or

festival events being cancelled?

2020 was to be a huge year for us and a time in which we had planned to implement a number of new music projects and collaborations. We had a targeted marketing and audience development plan in place and had just been accepted onto the Arts Council Annual Funding Programme for the first time. We had to cancel travel, accommodation and performances, and shut down the building on 14th March. We had also secured support for two new freelance posts for the arts team. Trying to integrate the two new staff was very challenging given that we were all thrust into the chaos of the pandemic. Trying to secure additional funding to help cover reskilling and the loss of income was an ongoing battle and extremely stressful. We also had to renegotiate existing funding agreements to be in a position to amend the planned programme.

Many venues have taken to social media and other online platforms to broadcast

concerts and events, including yourselves. What online events have you organised,

and have they been successful?

We were the first to act in the city if not the island. Our tag line is MORE THAN AN

ARTS CENTRE and part of this relates to our strong belief in community. We have

built a community of friends among our artists and felt that we needed to urgently

support them financially as best we could, given the collapse of the gig economy.

On 4th April we rolled out a self-funded/fund raising project called The Virtual

Cabaret – a series of self-shot/recorded performances from our artists/friends at

home. We supported 124 artists with this project. We then collaborated with

Carlingford Heritage Centre to produce a filmed series of performances from their

centre as a replacement for the Summer Concert Series (An annual event) curate by

musician Zoe Conway. Between these 2 projects we got funding to purchase an

extensive list of film/recording equipment and the opportunity to retrain the team in

filming/production. Most recently we put together an online art showcase project to

support and showcase local, new and emerging artists. Take 2 began 10th October

and will finish 23rd January 2021. It worked and supported (paid) 71 artists. We have

also put out online, podcasts, workshops, drama and classes.

Promoting artists and creatives is extremely important, why do you think continuing

to promote art is essential during this time?

I think that people sought comfort and sanctuary during the early stages of the pandemic, and it was no coincidence that they turned to the arts and creative sector in huge numbers. The arts are a positive influence on society, communities and individuals. They play an essential role in creating a more equal, caring and connected society and without the arts all our lives are poorer.

What do you think the future will hold for live venues? Do you think compromise

and a need to adapt is inevitable?

The longer the pandemic lasts the worse things get for venues. Reduced capacity is the best-case scenario at the moment but is still some time off. The greatest challenge will be to regain and build public confidence.

What do you miss most about having a live audience attend gigs in your venue?

The sense/atmosphere of community and positivity.

Were there any concerts/events that you were particularly looking forward to, but

were cancelled/postponed due to restrictions? If so, what?

We had loads planned, too many to breakdown but as I mentioned earlier this was to be a big breakthrough year for us.

There have been a lot of controversial statements made by members of HM

government regarding employment aspects within the arts sector (Cyber First) in

recent months, what is your opinion on this?

Let’s just say I do not agree and if anything, the arts are going to be needed more than ever as we move forward.

With the news of vaccine introduction, there seems to be a light at the end of the

tunnel! Can we expect any in-person events, perhaps at limited capacity?

I hope so. My belief is that we will start small with greatly reduced numbers in terms

of audience and participants. We have a real challenge to build back public

confidence and given that we are encountering set back after set back, this will be a

huge effort for the sector. I think that digital and streaming content has to be a part

of the new normal and will be key to the survival of many arts organisations in the

short to medium terms.

To get your live (ish) music fix, be sure to follow The Duncairn on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Their recent 'Take 2' series showcases some of the best homegrown talent, with this episode including artists such as Conor Scott and Alannah Thornburgh. Absolute magic.

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