In the beginning, there was the end of year public show for the graduates of the University of Ulster’s College of Art. It was the summer sign-off. Their best work was on display for a ready made audience of parents, potential employers and anyone interested in attending. The Ulster Festival of Art & Design had its place in the university’s calendar. Then came the change.
“We realised after a time that while the rationale was sound and we were programming it with good top drawer artists as well, we were missing a great trick because at that stage most of the students were gone and not getting the full benefit of the opportunity, “ says Tim Kerr, director of the festival which is now into its eighth year.
“A few years ago, we moved it back to March to avoid the end of term fatigue for students and staff. The majority of lecturing staff won’t lecture that week. They tell students to go to everything that is on.”
The Ulster Festival of Art & Design (March 9 -14) the only festival of its type in Ireland, brings together a variety of international participants amid the work of students of photography, ceramics, architecture, fashion, painting and textile.
“We try to bring people with new progressive thinking and contemporary perspectives on art and design,” explains Kerr. “People who are really pushing things forward in an adventurous and thought provoking way. That is very stimulating and inspiring.”
“It is very motivating when you see work that is being done on a global scale by people like Future City who are shaping public art and buildings around the world.
Also coming to Belfast are representatives of Graphic Thought Facility, a design consultancy renowned for its work with Google, Adidas and Channel Four.
“What we don’t let guests do is go into high technical, scholarly, academic stuff. It is completely accessible for people to go and enjoy,” explains Tim Kerr. “The creative path cuts across everything. Students cross over from one thing to the next. You might see an architecture student going to a talk on fashion design and getting inspiration from that.”
This year’s Ulster Festival of Art & Design will share some joint projects with the Belfast Children’s Festival. One of the main events features a day examining literature, reading and illustration in children’s books. A panel including Axel Scheffler of Gruffalo fame, David Lucas who is famous for titles such as 'The Skeleton Pirate' and 'Cake Girl', and Bruce Ingman who has just completed a book about the history of the Tate galleries called 'Mr Tate', will be present to discuss their work and ideas.
Tim Kerr regards this collaboration with the Belfast Children’s Festival as being beneficial to both audiences.
“The day session is part of an industry day for adults who work in the sphere of young people and children’s art. It is about how authors facilitators, tutors, writers actually present literature to young people and how to encourage children to read more.”
Tim Kerr points out that an exciting development within the festival has been the experimentation and collaboration between art disciplines. “We realised early on that since there is no performance in art and design, we had to be creative and inventive in going beyond people simply delivering lectures or talks.”
“Last year contemporary dancer David Ogle collaborated with Kevin Killen who works in neon. In darkness, David choreographed a movement piece that was traced by lights. These tracings were copied on to computer by Kevin. Those traces and colours were then made into a huge neon installation piece that will be in the university gallery. David has devised a performance piece that sits with it,” says Kerr.
This year for the first time, the Belfast International Festival of Performance Art will sit under the umbrella of the main art and design festival.
“This is a really specialist, challenging area which is being programmed by my colleague Brian Connolly,” explains Kerr. “We have artists coming from all over the world to be part of it and it really is making a name for itself. There aren’t really many outlets for this kind of work. “
Tim Kerr who heads up what he describes as a modest, small team, believes that part of their role is to also highlight how the University of Ulster has become a creative and innovative centre of excellence.
“The characteristics and personality of each campus is determined by what is studied there. At Magee College the students create brilliant music and theatre that no one gets to see. The idea is that in four or five years time we have a festival of performance art at Magee. We are looking at going down the literature route at Coleraine and we’ll continue to have the festival of art and design in Belfast,” he says.
A recent academic research evaluation shows that the Belfast School of Art came out higher than the Slade School of Fine Art and that it remains one of top three UK art colleges.
“When tuition fees were introduced there was a fear that the intake would dip because of concerns about long term job prospects,” says Tim Kerr. “But the reverse has happened. We are oversubscribed across all the courses in the BSA. People determining careers not by what their ancestors and family have done, but being driven by where they see their potential and passion and creativity going. “
As Belfast prepares for another festival of art and design, there is confidence its international reputation continue to grow.
“We still have a way to go with establishing the festival as instantly recognisable, “ explains Kerr. “The chairman of the London Design Festival once told us that it wasn’t until about year 8 or 9 that his friends stopped asking him, are you going to do that again next year? Now it’s huge.”
“We have a few years to run yet with Belfast but it’s edging its way in that direction,” adds Tim Kerr.
The Ulster Festival of Art and Design runs from March 9 to 14, view the full programme at www.ulsterfestival.com.