Our City of Culture year ‘needs to be family affair’

Noelle McAlinden may not be from Derry but she is a familiar face to anyone in the city with an artistic bone in their body.

The Creative Advisor to Ilex is a whirlwind of energy, enthusiasm and positivity, who manages to pop up at almost every cultural event that takes place locally, be it morning, noon or night. Based at the City of Culture office in Guildhall Square, the throbbing beating heart of preparations for 2013, Noelle is passionate about her work.

She said: “This office here is only a tiny window of opportunity to see what’s happening in the city. Since this office opened we’ve had people in here with all sorts of stories. Literally giants walking through that door, with experiences, with wisdom and with ideas.

Originally from the village of Maghery, Noelle describes where her loyalties lie.

“Technically speaking Maghery is on the border of Armagh and Tyrone. Physically and geographically it’s in Tyrone but my DNA is in Armagh,” she laughs. “Although it depends on who’s winning!”

What is clear however is her passion and commitment to Derry and most specifically to ensuring the success of 2013.

“On a personal level, it’s been a brilliant privilege for me to be involved. The people that you meet and the stories that you hear and the talent and the creativity that you uncover is unbelievable.”

Most people in the city seem to have embraced the concept of 2013, although some remain a little sceptical. There is the question of how much 2013 will actually benefit the local community and how this will translate in terms of investment and sustainable jobs. Older readers may remember the Impact 92 international arts festival, which arguably had little lasting impact.

And there is also the issue of our political history. Despite its fascination for the thousands of visitors that come to the city every year, it is only quite recently that this has been taken on board in terms of marketing. For many visitors, the city’s political heritage is what makes it so interesting.

Noelle however recognises the importance of embracing our past. “You need the dark and the light to grow. There’s no doubt about that,” she says.

“You cannot put everything in place without solid foundations. The new Peace Bridge is a visible sign of regeneration. The bridge is almost the best metaphor you can get,” she explains.

“Underneath the surface there has been a huge amount of work going on. And then you see the rhythm of something that’s brand new and that connects and celebrates and stretches into and across communities. And I suppose that’s what the whole City of Culture is all about.

“When you look at how the momentum has evolved…it’s all about purposeful enquiry, about getting underneath the surface. Finding the layers that make this place unique.

“We talk about the diaspora, and about people going beyond the city onto the international stage as well. But it has to be an inside-out job first. It has to begin with the hearts and minds and souls of the people that are here.”

And connections are important.

“It goes back to the bridge. If you can encourage people to meet and connect, to feel safe and supported then things will nourish and grow. It’s like a moving canvas of activity… an opportunity for all sorts of things to happen.”

Noelle is convinced that for 2013 to be a success, it needs to be a family affair, with opportunities for all age groups, including the elderly.

Focus on young people

The focus however is firmly on young people. “If we don’t invest in our young people there will not be the talent here; they will move on somewhere else,” she says.

“I’ve been around all the youth clubs and seen all the youth leaders that are working, and what’s going on in the schools. Look at the people that are totally committed in the volunteer sector and the community sector, as well as in the arts and culture sectors.

“It’s not just about the arts and our interpretation of it,” she explains. “It’s about everything. And culture is infinite in its definition.”

“There are plans in place to look at what it is that young people want and need. When you look at the initial resources that we already have like St Columb’s Park and Brooke Park, you see that with very little tweaking they could really be celebrated.

“I know that there is a desire to ensure that the open spaces and places are used in a much more creative and appropriate way.

“Ebrington will be part of the jewel in the crown. It’s not the only one, but I think it will help to extend the city centre. I know there’s a real desire to connect with and celebrate relationships with other cultural providers. It’s not instead of, it’s alongside…

“It’s not a case of money going into Ebrington instead of everything else. It’s a case of how we can celebrate the assets of the city, the land, the built heritage and the environment and the river assets. The river assets aren’t fully utilised yet, but they will be.”

Cultural champions for City of Culture formed an important part of the initial bid.

‘But most of them were in their mid to late twenties plus, plus, plus,” says Noelle.

Noelle would like to find cultural champions that are in their teenage years, “people who have a story to tell that’s a very positive story,” she says. “Maybe there was something that they got into that supported them through a difficult time, be it loss or ill health or whatever.”

Her experience working with the Prison Service and in mental health has led her to some conclusions:

“We need to look at how people are influenced by behaviour and experiences they’ve had, either good or bad experiences. There are some youngsters out there who despite the system, survive and grow.

“What makes somebody develop to their full potential? It’s not necessarily the place or the relationships or the people they have around them.”

Noelle is quite clear about what she wants for the city:

“We want a place that is safe, a place that nurtures talent, a place where the educational provision is excellent, where people feel secure and where the health system supports them.

“We want a place where tourism can flourish. We want a high quality road and rail system and a digital city that will thrive and grow. And then we need to celebrate all the aspects from the residential, and the green to the retail, and ultimately the retail because that’s the key resource.”