Peacebuilding and the arts: stitching the social fabric — cross-community arts

Image “Weaving” by Victoria PICKERING used by license CC BY-NC-ND

Peacebuilding and the arts: stitching the social fabric — cross-community arts
by Jack FARRAR
29 September 2023

This is the fourth in a series of articles about peacebuilding and the arts, exploring how creative practices help us revisit our past and reimagine our futures.

Northern Ireland has one of the most vibrant community arts scenes in Europe (see Community Arts Partnership directory). We have seen that community arts initiatives have various goals including making art more accessible, creating shared artworks, encouraging new ways of thinking, and developing local areas. Some other programmes are more blunt in their approach to conflict resolution and less interested in the artistic product. Inspired by intergroup contact theory, they use art merely as a vehicle to promote cross-community relations by facilitating dialogue and understanding through creative practice. In this section, we explore such government-funded programmes. 

Political sentiments become more polarised in the aftermath of armed conflict, and barriers of prejudice, taboo, and sectarian expectation divide neighbouring streets. It has been repeatedly shown that the creative elements of culture enable individuals and communities to constructively challenge and transcend these barriers (see Cynthia Cohen or Shank and Schirch).  By combining arts-related practice with facilitated dialogue, post-exhibition talkback sessions, open forums etc., the transitional journey from the participants’ emotional pathway to their cognitive pathway is empowered. Peace and conflict scholar Michael Shank sharply observes the frequent failure of artists to enact this latter step and solidify their message with the cognitive learner, while politicians commonly ignore the essential first step of accessing the emotional pathway. Healing from conflict and building sustainable peace requires engaging both hearts and minds.

An exemplar of such cross-community arts programming in Northern Ireland is New Lodge Arts, which delivers over 800 workshops each year stretching across the community and political divide in north Belfast. Working with approximately 2,000 children and young people, their annual arts programme is centred around promoting good relations and a shared future. For example, their event management team connects a group of young people from diverse backgrounds to brainstorm, plan, and deliver events together, reflecting on what they have learned during weekly meetings. In Derry/Londonderry, a similarly effective cross-community initiative brings young people together to promote tolerance and relation-building through an exciting programme of art workshops as varied as film, graffiti, and DJing. 

Choice and Voice Showcase Day. The Playhouse Street Talk Project. Source: YouTube.

The Playhouse’s Street Talk Project, generously funded by BBC Children in Need and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, places young people at the heart of their decision-making processes. Participants are encouraged to identify and creatively explore issues impacting their respective communities, including crime, justice, mental health, gender identity, good relations and shared space. Whereas conflict creates a divisive chasm, art emerges constructing a bridge, imparting fresh terrain for understanding and dialogue. 

The impressive spectrum of arts projects, events and initiatives across the region is bolstered by funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Working in partnership with hundreds of artists, organisations, and venues, they distribute public money and National Lottery funds to develop the arts, reach across boundaries, and bring communities together. This is why the recently proposed £1.3 million funding cut to the Arts Council has rattled the entire sector. Northern Ireland’s arts sector already lags behind neighbouring jurisdictions, with a current allocation of £5.07 per head of population compared to £10.51 in Wales (our nearest comparator) and £21.58 in the Republic. A proposed 10% funding reduction in a sector that is already struggling makes very little sense, said Liam Hannaway, the chair of the Arts Council:

“Government investment in the arts here has fallen since 2011 to £9.7m in 2023. In real terms, this equates to a reduction of almost £10 million in that time. As a bare minimum, the Arts Council needs this latest cut reversed and an additional £10.51 million, if we are to achieve our ambitions. Given the far-reaching social and economic benefits that the arts sector evidently brings to the region, not just in terms of awards, Oscars and international success, this investment is entirely proportionate.”

It is more than just arts and culture in Northern Ireland that are at risk, the Arts Council Chief Executive Roisin McDonough said of the social impact of these proposed cuts: 

“The arts enrich our lives, the economy, bring communities closer together, contribute to better health and wellbeing, and create a place where we all want to live, work and play. They aren’t a luxury, they are a universal human right.”

The triumph of Northern Ireland’s art sector extends beyond the creation of great art; it has steadily enhanced individual and community well-being across the region, fostered social cohesion, and elevated the economy (studies show a positive multiplier effect for investment in the arts). These achievements are indebted to the careful allocation of already modest amounts of public funding. The Arts and Humanities Research Council recently funded a project investigating the role of funded arts for reconciliation in Northern Ireland. A lead member of the research team, Professor Peter Shirlow, reflected (page 4): “[Arts for reconciliation] can only evolve via endurance, perseverance, creativity and sustained investment. Short-term and sporadic funding strategies are the complete antithesis of such evolution and a block to developmental capacity.” 

A long-term investment strategy is essential if we wish to continue procuring the benefits of a vibrant arts and cultural sector; the societal risk of further cuts cannot be overstated. 


Cynthia Cohen: Creative Approaches to Reconciliation: From War to Peace

Michael Shank: “Redefining the Movement: Art Activism

Michael Shank and Lisa Schirch: Strategic Arts-Based Peacebuilding

Image “Weaving” by Victoria PICKERING used by license CC BY-NC-ND.

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