New Ideas Take Flight at the New York-New Belfast Conference

Photo:  The opening night of the New York-New Belfast conference featured a panel entitled the "The Healing Power of Art" with Brona Crehan, Matt Torney, Marcus Robinson, Patriciapp Corbett, and moderator John Lee.  Courtesy: Aisling Events

The opening night of the New York-New Belfast conference featured a panel entitled the “The Healing Power of Art” with Brona Crehan, Matt Torney, Marcus Robinson, Patriciapp Corbett, and moderator John Lee. Courtesy: Aisling Events

How it’s New York: Hosted by Fordham University & Attended by Irish American leaders in Business, Politics, & the Arts
How it’s Irish: Presented by Aisling Events & Designed to Build Bridges to Belfast and Beyond

The sixth annual New York-New Belfast conference was a resounding affirmation that the arts are good for business. The brainchild of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, former Lord Mayor of Belfast, publisher of The Irish Echo, and Managing Director of the Belfast Media Group, the New York-New Belfast conference was held from June 4-5th at Fordham University in midtown Manhattan. Having attended the conference for the past several years, I am always impressed and heartened by the central role that the arts are given in what is ostensibly a business gathering. This year was no exception. Conference delegates were warmly welcomed by the Belfast-born, New York-based actor Geraldine Hughes who kicked off an evening of presentations and panels that highlighted the contributions of the arts to building a better Belfast and a better New York.

Several major Belfast success stories of arts and business partnerships were highlighted. Titanic Belfast – the world’s largest Titanic-themed visitor attraction with nine interactive galleries – opened in 2012 to commemorate the centenary of the ship’s doomed maiden voyage. The number of first year visitors far exceeded initial projections of 425,000. In 2012, Titanic Belfast welcomed 807,340 visitors, of which 471,702 were from outside Northern Ireland. Today, Titanic Belfast is the centerpiece of the Titanic Quarter, one of the world’s largest urban waterfront revitalization programs, which boasts the island’s biggest indoor sports center as well as spaces for large-scale public concerts, hotels, shopping, and dining.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has become the most important filming location for the HBO Blockbuster series Game of Thrones. Tourism officials wisely capitalized upon the show’s popularity and rolled out a three-month international online marketing campaign that generated an estimated 8.6 million Euros worth of publicity for Northern Ireland in 2014. Today, Game of Thrones tours are an increasingly popular tourist attraction – with routes running from Belfast and Dublin.

In addition to these large-scale success stories, the New York-New Belfast conference featured equally compelling arts projects on a more personal, individual level. Conference delegates were serenaded by Anthony Toner of Eastside Arts, East Belfast, and enjoyed a poetry reading by Christopher Cahill, author and Executive Director of the American Irish Historical Society. John Lee, of Irish American Writers & Artists, chaired a compelling panel entitled “The Healing Power of Art,” while Brooklyn based artist Mac Premo spoke passionately about his previous public art projects in Belfast and his current work making skateboard decks out of upcycled materials. Aidan Connolly, the Executive Director of the Irish Arts Center, discussed the center’s thrilling plans to construct a new building on Manhattan’s west side – a major undertaking that is sure to provide increased visibility and partnerships for artists both locally and abroad.

I was pleased to participate in a panel discussion entitled “Curtain Up on a New Era: Making Belfast and New York Partners in Arts and Culture” alongside colleagues from a wide range of artistic disciplines including: Linda Martin, NI Screen; Ciarán O’Reilly, Irish Repertory Theatre; John Kearns, Writer/IAW&A Inc. Salon Producer; Kevin Gamble, Director Féile an Phobail, Daniel McCabe, playwright; Tara O’Grady, Singer/Songwriter; and George Heslin of Origin Theatre Company. Moderated by Anita Daly of Daly Communications, our conversation focused largely on shared concerns such as fundraising in an era of budget cuts and attracting live audiences in a world with many competing demands for time and attention. Panelists shared personal experiences and brainstormed new ideas such as: encouraging corporations based in Belfast to adopt an American model of corporate sponsorship of the arts; utilizing a range of networks such as the Irish Business Organization and IN-NYC to promote artistic projects; and connecting Belfast artists with New York artists via skype salons.

On Friday, the focus of the conference shifted to the growing economic relationship between New York and Belfast. Nevertheless, the central role of the arts reverberated throughout the day and that awareness will undoubtedly be carried forward into Aisling Events’ next production: Belfast Homecoming from October 7-10, 2015. 



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