VAI CEO, Noel Kelly, hosts visit of Luca Jahier, President of the European Economic and Social Committee to culture sector of Northern Ireland

Visual Artists Ireland (VAI) was delighted and honoured to co-host the visit of EU President Luca Jahier, of the European Economic and Social Committee to Northern Ireland. At a gathering that included Members of President Jahiers Committee and Cabinet, Members of the Legislative Assembly, Members of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and members of the Cultural Sector, the arts sector presented their thoughts to President Jahier on Tuesday 25 June.

The visit focused on Peace and Borders in Europe, with a particular view of how Brexit will impact on Northern Ireland cultural projects that work in border areas and with themes of reconciliation and cross community co-operation.

VAI was supported in this visit by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. There were be presentations from a number of projects across cultural disciplines, chaired by the Arts Council Northern Ireland CEO, Roisin McDonough, with introductions from Noel Kelly, CEO, Visual Artists Ireland [NI].

Key point made by President Jahier was that the EU will continue to attempt to engage in a meaningful manner with Northern Ireland.


Welcoming Speech – Noel Kelly, Director/CEO Visual Artists Ireland

I would like to welcome you all to our gathering this afternoon. President Jahier and your colleagues, Members of the Legislative Assembly, the Arts Council, fellow members of the creative community.

First I would like to say thank you to Deirdre Robb and her team here in Belfast Exposed for hosting us, as well as the Arts Council team and the Irish Museums Association who have selected our speakers here today.

As VAI is the representative organisation for visual artists on the island of Ireland and the extended Irish visual arts diaspora, we act as advocates for visual artists and the visual arts sector, as well as the wide range of support services that we offer on a daily basis to visual artists, groups, local and national governments, as well as to the EU through our participation in networks such as the IAA, and especially through our board membership of Culture Action Europe.

Although we are now facing into so much uncertainty for our fellow citizens as we wait to see what the reality of Brexit will eventually bring, it is clear that there are some points that we need to be conscious off.

You will hear from all sectors of our society about the importance of the peace process and the impact it has had on our society which opened itself up to collective hopes and dreams. This world of hopes and dreams, combined with acknowledgement of the past and a vision of a new future,  is the centre of our creative community. As we are all aware, the arts have been hugely instrumentalized as creators of change, improvers of health and well-being, and the provider of discourse, even in times and places of heightened tensions. We have accepted this role, but! And this is a big But…  The arrival of peace brings with it other forms of tension. There are some serious challenges faced by our creative community as we seek to actively contribute to what we term post-conflict, as well as to a world that has moved even beyond that term… Accusations of elitism, budgetary cuts, and a lack of on-going strategic vision has resulted in us seeing organisations close, projects ended, and companies working in hugely reduced budgets. We combine this with a clearly researched statistic that the majority of visual artists in Northern Ireland live under the poverty threshold. For us, it sometimes appears that the only voice that we have at the decision making level, is that of the Arts Council as they continue to fight for culture in our society.

And now, we look at the additional effects on our work due to Brexit and the rise of the populist voice. Speaking to the lowest common denominator, we see the progress of our society eroded, and an increased attempt both internally and externally to polarise our communities.  What gives great hope is that there is still a strong cultural voice in Northern Ireland. We offer not only an audience experience, but also give voice to the building of connections, relationships and trust. It is unfortunate, that each of these can be undermined if the context at other levels is not there to support progress.

I suggest that we need to express our most serious of concerns for our future. The arts rely on a number of key facts: Freedom of Expression; Freedom of Movement (both of workers and cultural goods); and Freedom to participate as equal citizens in a society that respects our contribution.  Each one of these freedoms is now under attack. We can see the rise of the propaganda of fear… We can see how even our cross-border collaborations are in stasis as they wait to find out what the future will be… We can see a restriction on what is considered acceptable art in some of our publicly funded spaces…  And most of all, we can see the difficulties that lie ahead as we attempt to work with our colleagues beyond the United Kingdom, as they (and I quote here from a recent presentation hosted by the Creative Industries Federation) “find it easier and more welcoming in other European countries…”

Northern Ireland has a unique history, a unique gathering of identities, and a unique ability to dream and to hope even in the darkest of times…  It is unfortunate that our dreams and hopes are being worn away and it is clear that for us to continue to deliver at the levels of creativity and engagement that our politicians use to advertise our attractiveness as a location for investment, we need to see change… We need clear evidence that we are not only being supported in a sustainable and meaningful way, but that we are also respected… With this respect and support we have the freedom to dream of what our world can be, and be able to share this with our fellow citizens.

Brexit or No Brexit, Border or No Border, Deal or No Deal, Back stop or No Back stop! Somebody has to listen to us and help us plan for our society’s future…  At the moment we have individual ears and the sole voice of the Arts Council… But I would suggest that we need a lot more… Our sector is diminished through a reduction of strong sustainable and reliable support…  Our creative brain drain is a reality… So, instead of dividing us, we believe that all sides of the current argument should look at the level of past investment that is now being wasted away through a lack of coherent direction and by treating culture as the poor cousin. We are here and now to give some voice to our work, and with a very strong offer… We are willing to be active participants in building the future of our country, of Europe, and indeed the global community.

We are a strong part of civil society…  And I would suggest that we have much in common with the rest of the world as I say…  It would shame us to ignore that culture is essential for our future.

Investing in culture is essential for our sustainable and inclusive future
Defending the rule of law, our fundamental rights and freedoms requires art and culture to be free. The value of cultural diversity and freedom of artistic expression is increasingly challenged in our contemporary world and must be actively promoted
Cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue play an important role in the promotion of human rights, tolerance, and non-discrimination across the world.

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