MY STORY Irish eyes

EMMA SMITH is the director of the Liverpool Irish Festival, the largest Irish arts festival in the UK. She has worked
with many of the city’s leading cultural venues and figures, including a number of years heading up the creative community at Bluecoat, directing
 the Look Liverpool international photography festival and working with beacon festivals such as DaDaFest and Liverpool Arab Arts Festival.

Tell us how you got involved in an arts career? What brought you to Liverpool? What is special about the city for you?

My arts career started as a 12 year
old performer in Leicestershire
Youth Arts, performing at Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre, Phoenix Theatre and then the Edinburgh Arts Festival. I picked up performance and visual arts qualifications and moved to Liverpool to undertake performance and fine art. Liverpool was one of the only cities in the UK where you could study these equally.

Liverpool took hold of me, like a good friend does, and showed me its sights, drawing me into its arts and cultural networks. The very fact that we have “leading cultural venues”, “creative communities” and “beacon festivals” is part of what is so special to me about the city - sometimes it
is easy to forget that these have been hard won and it is the ecology of creative individuals, supported by
an incredible framework, that allows Liverpool to brim over with creative endeavour. That is special to me. It has a certain frisson that you don’t experience elsewhere, that is met
with inquisitive minds and interest; with wit and amusement. Liverpool’s warmth is part of the framework that offers space for risks to be taken. Ideas get off the ground here that wouldn’t in other cities, because people - the public, but also the council - actually have a will to see things.

How do you approach managing an arts or cultural festival?

It is not only about giving audiences what they think they want, but also about earning a strong enough reputation for the quality that you deliver, that they trust
you to guide them towards other cultural experiences
they may not have been aware of. I’ve found the more you can earn an audience’s trust, the more they will try. My belief is that a festival has an opportunity to take the kind of risks a fixed venue cannot. Audiences expect to move from one event to the next and for them to have only a loose connection, which you can’t do from a ”fixed abode”. Not liking one thing among many is acceptable, but if audiences hate an entire exhibition that’s in a venue for months, they struggle and it taints their view.

This means festivals are the place
to try things, push barriers and ask questions that “static spaces” tend
to need to avoid! This poses really interesting opportunities, presents new collaborative directions and – in my own experience – has proven to be really exciting.

Tell us about your time running LOOK. What were the highlights of your time with LOOK?

I loved working on LOOK. Photography is such a fascinating medium and has had to fight extremely hard for its place in the arts canon. Great photography works on so many levels - from documenting to political and emotional provocations - and bears all the intricacy, power and motivation witnessed in other art forms.

In spite of being surrounded by photography all the time, it is rare we really look at this for the artistry it involves and the deep stories the resulting images portray. Some of the photographers I worked with have incredible world views, empathy and compassion. They have had to navigate the most difficult subject areas and the ethics that shape their work in these environments colludes to inform their world views. So whether it was Jona Frank – a middle aged American woman, looking at how we shape our young men for their futures - or Casey Orr examining how our young women are influenced
by previous role models and styles predating them by decades - there was always an intent, a depth, a pursuance of some point of truth. I enjoy that.

I enjoy enabling people to fulfil their aspirations and I felt that with all the emerging work we showed, pitching them with international artists of renown and providing space for everyone to speak to one another, we were creating and celebrating excellent work.

Why did you move to Bluecoat?

Bluecoat has a long tradition in Liverpool. Is it an advantage to have that sense of history behind you when you are engaging with artists at the centre?

I had taken up some piecemeal events work at Bluecoat to help bridge a gap in staffing back in 2000, working with the incredible - and dearly missed - Dinesh Allirajah. After just a few sessions, I was invited to take on the role of Front of House Manager.
I grew the role and worked on some incredible events, such as some of those early Arabic festivals, Biennials and showstopper events.

Knowing that Bluecoat was closing for refurbishment I moved to University of Liverpool to improve my skills and after the Bluecoat’s refurbishment, I was asked to help on a project called Twins. Following this I worked with Bluecoat’s creative community and ended up as head of creative enterprise. This was great, but I felt the need for more creativity in my own practice; I wanted to programme and exhibit; I wanted
to tell stories and make a difference to the cultural economy of the city.
I knew Bluecoat would carry on, whether I was there or not, and I wanted to play a more vital role to something, which is when I spotted the LOOK role. Bam! I hadn’t known it, but it was just what I was looking for.

Bluecoat had given me a great grounding for thinking about audiences, for considering the city and its heritage, for really valuing
our cultural make-up and how that interacts with the city’s very identity. In a risk averse society, art is anarchy because it cannot fit a mould or model and if people don’t understand you they can’t support you – it is a truly difficult framework in which to excel. But Liverpool does it better that most and the sheer amount of creativity we witness is staggering. Bluecoat, NML and other city heavyweights are - to some degree - the long-term product of emerging artists, who all had to begin somewhere and who fought for a platform from which to be heard.

Tell us about the Liverpool Irish Festival. What will be different about it?

I guess that depends on what you mean! Different from last year’s festival or different from other festivals?

The Liverpool Irish Festival is
one of the largest, cross-disciplined Irish festivals in the country, many
of which centre primarily on music and tend to rally around St Patrick’s Day. Ours looks at the gamut of
Irish culture and the cross-overs that develop in between. Its relationship to the city makes it unique, too. No other city has the connection with the Island of Ireland that Liverpool has and our ability to look at Irish and Liverpool Irish communities together means we are not like any other Irish festival on the mainland.

This year we have commissioned articles, which draw together ideas found across the events programme. We are creating a materials library and a social space at Everyman, so that there is always a place to get in out of the rain and see a friendly face. We are trying to link stories between festivals and bring audiences with us across the programme and on to next year. While we will focus on conviviality this year, we are already starting to pose the question “what does it mean to be Irish today?”, which will help us programme next year, once we understand more about how Brexit has affected the answers to this question.

Liverpool’s era as City of Culture was back in 2008. Has there been a lasting legacy or has it faded over the years?

I feel the impact of 2008 daily.
Without out it, Bluecoat may not
have disabled toilets, FACT might
not have its incredible venue, Baltic Creative probably would not have sprung up and Liverpool would still be fighting for every scrap of national coverage. I see 2008 as a complete game changer. It demonstrated to
the world some of what we were capable of and gave aspiration to organisations and individuals who were caught in the daily grind of trying to get their art out and in to the world without a well-recognised, local platform. It gave credence to us as an international city, not just a European one. It changed how hotels and commerce viewed us and put culture to the lips of those who had never considered it.

The fact that you’re asking the question is testament to the fact that inside the city we have to think about how far we have come and where next we can go. It’s exciting. It was a kick start not a full stop and whilst it fulfils some nostalgia to look back, it’s so promising to look at what’s coming ahead!

Liverpool – what’s your favourite thing about the city?
The people. Liverpudlians are a complex lot; they’re funny and whimsical, fast and inquisitive. I love the accent and the phrases and how Scousers keep me on my toes and make me feel at home, every day.

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