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Alison Gordon believes culture is vital to the regeneration of Northern Ireland's seaside towns, but ongoing cuts to the arts will have a damaging impact. 

Open House festival choir in Bangor
Open House festival choir in Bangor

25 years ago, my partner Kieran Gilmore and I founded a festival in Belfast. Coming from different sides of the political and religious divide, we believed the signing of the Good Friday agreement the previous year heralded a new era for Northern Ireland. We saw a vital role for the arts in helping create a post-Troubles shared identity, and opportunities for a new arts venue.

We started Open House Festival in Belfast’s then newly designated Cathedral Quarter, curating and nurturing it for fifteen years. By 2013 Belfast had undergone a cultural and economic renaissance and we decided to move operations to my hometown of Bangor. 

Bangor was formerly Northern Ireland’s main seaside resort but, like many coastal towns in the UK and Ireland, had spiralled into social and economic decline in recent decades, effectively becoming a dormitory town for Belfast fourteen miles along the coast. 

Despite being the third largest conurbation in Northern Ireland, Bangor had virtually no arts infrastructure and no dedicated theatre, arts centre or music venue.

On a mission to regenerate

Open House brought audiences, reputation and learning from our years in Belfast and began a mission to reconnect the local population with their town centre and seafront, and kickstart the regeneration of Bangor. 

We used any available venues and spaces for festival events, from screening Jaws in the local swimming pool, to staging concerts, theatre, comedy and spoken word events in a walled garden, an old fort, a park, an island and on a fishing boat. Over the next ten years our annual festival delivered nearly 1,000 events in more than 60 venues, attracting 300,000 people and bringing £12m into the local economy.

But the organisation had no permanent base, its small team housed in a series of temporary offices, from a converted shipping container to an empty unit in a church building. In 2015 we began a campaign to save the old Court House on Bangor seafront and transform it into a permanent home for the festival. 

This beautiful 150-year-old Victorian listed building, built as a bank, had fallen vacant and was on the At-Risk Register. Over the next five years we raised £2m from a range of funders and a crowdfunding campaign, finally taking possession of the Court House in 2020 via Northern Ireland’s first ever Community Asset Transfer. 

Achieving city status

Following a full restoration and redevelopment, the Court House opened in October 2022 as Bangor’s only dedicated music and arts venue, with a year-round artistic programme. In the first nine months we’ve staged 270 events with some 800 artists and creatives, and welcomed 26,000 people through our doors. 

Over the last decade the festival and the Court House have contributed to the physical regeneration of Bangor, and also played a part in raising aspirations and creating a vision of a modern seaside town – it is now known as the Brighton of Northern Ireland. 

There are significant new green shoots: small independent businesses are springing up alongside the empty retail units, and two major infrastructure projects are due to transform the waterfront over the next decade. 

In 2022 the town was awarded city status, marking a turning point in Bangor’s fortunes, and the beginning of a new golden era for Northern Ireland’s newest seaside city.

Sobering challenges

So far so good. But despite the successes to date, Open House faces sobering challenges. We have long term ambitions for the Court House and the Festival with a planned second phase of development in partnership with the local authority as part of the Bangor Waterfront Plan. And with city status, we hope to bid for UK City of Culture. 

But none of this will happen without support, and the funding landscape in Northern Ireland is bleak. With the lack of a functioning government for nearly six years, public sector funding has been devastated. We are the only region in the UK and Ireland that has no dedicated government department for culture and the arts. We fall under the Department for Communities, competing with benefits and pensions, housing and regeneration for limited resources. 

Because of the political stalemate in the NI Assembly, it was May before this year’s budgets were set by Westminster. After 20 years funded by Arts Council NI, we got the devastating news that we wouldn’t be supported through their Annually Funded Programme – our only regular core funding. 

Four weeks later, we learned Tourism NI’s National Events Sponsorship Scheme had been scrapped, leaving a gaping hole our festival budget. Two months into the financial year, we had lost £80k  – or 8% of our total income – at the start of our summer season. At such a late stage, we had no choice but to continue as planned.

Impossible choices

I don’t blame either organisation, faced with impossible choices. The exchequer budget for Arts Council NI has been reduced every year for 12 years, with this year’s allocation a paltry £9.7m – a real-terms reduction of £10m over the period. Arts Council NI was able to fund just 23 organisations in the current year. 

But there is a ray of light in this story. Encouraged to apply for Arts Council Lottery funding, in mid-July we found out we’d been successful, making up £50k of our shortfall. A huge relief. And we remain energised by the unwavering support of our local community and our amazing team of volunteers. 

But what will happen next year? Or the year after? The local authority continues to support our annual festival. And we have some short-term support for the Court House, including activation funding in the capital budget, and a Covid recovery grant. But these are one-off time limited grants. 

After 2024/25 we face a funding cliff edge. Without additional support, funding will make up just 14% of our annual budget. The choice will be stark: to run at a loss, to scale back operations, or to become increasingly commercial. How will we justify taking creative risks? Or catering to specialist or under-represented audiences? Or spending time on ambitious projects that will benefit our local communities? Those are the reasons we exist, and why we are a fiercely independent arts charity, not a commercial promoter. But that is the dilemma we will face in the very near future. 

Alison Gordon is Development Director and Co-founder of Open House Festival and the Court House in Bangor, Northern Ireland. 
 www.openhousefestival.com | www.courthousebangor.com
@OpenHouseBangor | @courthousevenue

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Headshot of Alison Gordon