Back in 1999 when the thing that people feared the most was the Millennium Bug which only was thought to affect our computers (but of course was seen as a doomsday scenario) who could’ve thought that 21 years later the whole world would have been so convulsed in such turmoil through a global coronavirus pandemic. When we think of those heady innocent millennial days when Martin Lynch had the clear sightedness to develop a community arts initiative that would link communities right across Belfast in fundamentally creative ways. Now, 21 years later, Community Arts Partnership is not so much celebrating its birthday as recognising the resilience of the artists and communities we serve, for whom these 2 decades have been far from easy. And today, we pay tribute to hundreds of thousands of people across our towns and cities, our villages and townlands, who are struggling against this massive upheaval and coping with pain, loss, loneliness and fear.
Everyone in our community has suffered in different ways; many have heard the plea from the arts sector but the community sector and indeed the organisations and populations that it supports, has been equally devastated. Of course, many industries have been decimated and many lives have been changed forever. Many friendships have struggled to be maintained against the divisive backdrop of coronavirus and the restrictions to contain it. And old divisions have surfaced, with anger and intolerance. But we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement address one of those fault lines in our world and we all hope for better days, beyond racism and sectarianism and fear. It was never acceptable for sectarianism, racism, sexism and hate to become so casual and pervasive. Just a few weeks ago, in a public forum, I experienced the casual sexism of others for the first time in this sector. A leader of another organisation threw a brickbat charged with sexist language without any remorse or apology. If this society is to grow, move on and build, especially in the difficult centenary year of 2021, then such causal dismissals of our neighbours need to stop. We need to focus on the real enemy in our midst – poverty, injustice and inequality and not waste our energy on the careless and the spiteful.
For now though, our thoughts are with the present struggles.
If life is to get back to normal and we all hope that this vaccine allows something like normality at least for a little while (before the next winter of COVID19 arrives) then we must re-dedicate ourselves to healing the divisions in our society: not just those between the two main traditions here but also the wide gulf between the powerful and the weak; between the wealthy and the impoverished; between the physically able and the disabled; between the young and the old. A vaccine will not change those determinedly entrenched difficulties in our society that have only been made worse through the pandemic but it will give us a platform to go out and re-engage and to actively address the problems that face our society and hopeful correct the course of our shared journey.
And of course there is no better way for our communities to repair, to respond, recover and renew themselves than through the expressive ability of the arts. Whether it’s coming up with a new plan for an area; reopening a community centre or a nursing home to visitors; a school that has been decimated through absence and sickness or a community that has seen too much loss over this past nine months, our ability to creatively build back and solves problems will see us through.
I would like to thank all those people who have been careful, sensitive, supportive and indeed perhaps even angry about just what is going on around Covid19 and its management here. We will need to question why certain things were done and what wasn’t but for now we can take some measure of consolation at Christmas, even though for many it will be an isolated, lonely time. Still, we know who our friends and family are and we are thankful that at least, we can talk to each other and see each other, albeit electronically.
21 years of New Belfast/Community Arts Partnership – 2021 also heralds the 36th anniversary of Community Arts Forum as well. I really want to thank the CAP team, Gordon and Steven who are taking turns to be in the office and keep information services and access open, our board of trustees too (Happy Birthday Carole) who have met via zoom or conference call and kept the governance of the organisation going; all the project coordinators: Sally, Heather, Tracey, Shelley who have kept the wheels turning on the creativity bus and Josh Schultz for his enthusiasm and energy in securing opportunities for the organisation.
I especially want to thank all those community groups and schools that are working as hard as they can developing creatively their skills and imaginations as we conclude 2020 and look forward to a happier, healthier 2021
I also want to thank the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council, the Department for Communities, Social Enterprise Northern Ireland the Enkalon Foundation Northern Ireland for their consistent generosity and determination to support our mission and this sector through its darkest times. And I wish every artists and arts worker applying to the second round of the Emergency Funding for Individuals every success in securing some monies that might just soften the blow of a years lost earnings.
So, happy birthday New Belfast Community Arts Initiative and CAP and may I wish all our readers, participants, artists and volunteers, a safe and healthy holiday season and the happiest New Year that we can make it. Here’s to our future.