Investing in Joy

Investing in Joy* by Fighting Words NI Director, Hilary Copeland

*This piece was first published in the new quarterly Arts & Business NI magazine 'The Spark'.

Throughout the pandemic, one purely selfish loss I’ve felt has been what a colleague terms ‘happenstance’ – the unexpected bumping into someone you know, and standing around shooting the breeze for too long until you’re late for your next appointment. Belfast lends itself incredibly well to this sort of random encounter. Over the past decade that I’ve worked in the arts in NI, this has long been my favourite thing about working in a small, interconnected place, and I’ve missed it terribly.

THERE WILL BE A FAR SIDE TO THIS LONESOME LOCKDOWN EXPERIENCE - WHAT THAT WILL LOOK LIKE REMAINS UNCLEAR. ‘Horizons’ helped ease that dearth of connection and conversation. Listening to people I know, and people I don’t, talk insightfully, reflectively, honestly and realistically about working as arts professionals was helpful in reminding me that there will be a far side to this lonesome lockdown experience. What that will look like remains unclear. The gravity of what the arts has experienced throughout the pandemic is all too real – as a salaried arts worker I am very aware of how fortunate I am, and how vital (yet fragile) the freelance ecosystem is. We’re looking at a sector that is vulnerable, often underemployed and underpaid. Questions that I asked myself were: how can I not only better support this ecosystem, but strengthen it? What can I do to provide more entry points to the arts for a more diverse range of people? And just as importantly, how can I sustain those jobs?

Panellists spoke about more radical approaches to arts programmes, and I loved that. Alan Lane from Slung Low talked about how his theatre company is interwoven within the community and moved to respond to the needs of local people throughout the pandemic. I was inspired hearing about how business models can be formulated that are imbued with this ethos. I always love hearing from Ruth McCarthy at Outburst and Kwa Daniels from Bounce, who are both using digital technology not only to redress inequalities of representation, access and engagement, but also because of how creatively exciting it is to create and present art in different ways.

THE ANNUAL FUNDING CYCLE IS EXHAUSTING - INVESTING IN JOY SHOULD BE A POLITICAL NO-BRAINER. Many of the speakers echoed Mary Nagele’s statement on how inhibiting the existing funding models are to a sustainable and healthy arts community in NI. A cross-departmental creative taskforce that breaks us out of the limiting, exhausting annual funding cycle is something I would like to see, coming with a political will, combined with tangible action, that invests in the wellbeing of communities. Joy has been thin on the ground over the past year in so many ways, with tragic, irreversible consequences – investing in joy should be a political no-brainer.