Be Inspired Series
Festival Director of Young At Art
Young At Art
Ali has a degree in English and Italian and a postgraduate in cultural management and social enterprise as well as specialist training in health and safety.
What does your role involve?
As the director of Young at Art, who run the Belfast Children's Festival, I select the artists and companies that will be part of the festival, plan the artistic programme, all the outreach work, who we'll partner with and where we'll have a special emphasis. I'm also executive director, so I oversee the team; am responsible for raising and managing finances; and keep up to speed with policy, government strategies and new innovations. We are a small team in which everyone multi-tasks and every day is different.
How did you get into this line of work -- have you always had an interest in working with children and the arts?
Both my parents are involved in the arts so it is in my blood. Over the years I've been involved in production for professional theatre and music promotion but I always came back to arts for children. I'm passionate that children use their imagination.
Do you have particular training or qualifications?
During my school and university days I did voluntary, behind-the-scenes work, show production and costumes design. I have a degree in English and Italian and a postgraduate in cultural management and social enterprise as well as specialist training in health and safety. As we're in a globally connected business, I am very grateful for my languages.
What are the main debates on children's arts in Northern Ireland at present?
While we get valuable support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the overall arts budget is lower here than anywhere else in the UK and Ireland and has been for many years, leading to a slow drain on the whole infrastructure and workforce. With the arts more popular and vital than ever before, we need to ensure that children in Northern Ireland share equal access as their counterparts in the UK. Issues like best practice with the new Child Protection guidance is something we also take seriously.
How has Young At Art responded to these debates?
To ensure that thousands of children have access to art experiences and events, we spend a large part of our year working with public bodies and private sector partners to find the money we need. A lot of the festival is free and we fundraise 80% of our costs to keep ticket prices down. We also do a lot of work with communities and schools to ensure that as many children have access to the arts. We're also engaging with other youth arts organisations in Northern Ireland and are involved in cross-border discussions on linking up children's theatre companies north and south.
What is your ideal vision for children's arts in Northern Ireland?
More of it in every child's life, every single day, from morning to night. Children are born artists and it's only as we grow up we forget to be creative. It's vital our children get the chance to be artists, to see high quality theatre and music events in and out of school from early childhood.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
There is a moment in every festival (usually quite a few moments) when I see a child respond to one of our events or a parent tells me how much it has meant to them. I feel lucky that I can look forward to going to work in a job where I get to make children's lives more creative.
Could our local and national politicians be doing more to boost children's arts?
We need a sustainable infrastructure of small, not-for-profit businesses and funding schemes to keep the industry moving. I think many local politicians have shown a commitment to the arts by attending events and contributing to discussions but maybe this needs to focus on a long-term plan.
Tell me about some of the recent projects you have been involved in?
We are involved in the Belfast Children's Festival mode (May 21-30). Part of that has included working with New Lodge Arts and the Westland Community Group in North Belfast for a family event in the Waterworks Park called Festival Goes to the Waterworks, supported by Tesco. We're taking our event, Baby Rave, to the Norwich and Norfolk Music Festival, working with a school on the Shankill Road and have a fantastic architecture project with two Belfast schools. This will culminate in an interactive exhibition called Cardboard Cities, where festival-goers will be able to help rebuild the city.
What personal qualities are needed for the role you do?
You need the hide of a rhinoceros, the sensitivity of a brain surgeon, the stamina of a long distance runner and a spirit of fun too.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself?
When I moved to Belfast from my hometown of Cork, I told my then fiancé that if I didn't like it after six months, we'd leave. That was in 1994 and we're still here.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Never commit to something you can't deliver. I was 14 and trying to decorate Cork City Hall for a Carnival Weekend. It was a challenge I delivered on and has stayed with me ever since.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Spending time with my family and cooking -- especially baking-- and I have to say my carrot cake is exceptional.