A crucial component of any comprehensive education, the role of the arts in the school system has diminished in recent years in favour of more lucrative subjects like science and math. Working within the arts is now considered impractical, and even frivolous, without some sort of international acknowledgement or fame. The sentiment is far from true, of course; the arts are a complex and necessary aspect of culture and a vital part of a child’s developmental process.

“Every child should have the right to access high-quality arts experiences,” explains Eblhin de Bara, director of Belfast-based Young at Art. “It enriches their lives and helps them connect to and understand the world around them and their place in it.”

As one of Northern Ireland’s leading not-for-profit organizations, Young at Art offers a series of free, open-access educational courses and workshops to those under the age of 18. The group also hosts the annual Belfast Children’s Festival, which explores a variety of artistic mediums, including painting, music, dance, literature, theatre, and more.

“Our mandate is ‘to create and curate exceptional arts experiences for all children and young people,’” notes de Bara, who is a native of the region and currently resides in Holywood, Co. Down. “We ensure that communities across the city of Belfast and Northern Ireland can do that. And we are winning – the work we do has a reputation for high quality and accessibility.”

She says that the Belfast Children’s Festival is one of the largest events of its kind in Europe.

“We have audiences that travel to the event from every part of Belfast, across Northern Ireland and further afield. This past March, the gathering was attended by over 22,000 people, with 38 per cent of that audience coming from high deprivation areas. That is very important to us, and thus many of our events are free to participate in or attend. For our engagement programs we target schools and groups in the areas of greatest social need in the city. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this? There really is something for everyone, from babies to grandparents…”

Originally hired in 2011 as Events Manager, de Barra became more involved over time.

“From there, I went on to co-ordinate the community engagement element of a large project for the organization, and I took over as Director in 2016. I am very proud of the work we do, especially the festival, which brings brilliant and innovative local and international performance work for young audiences to Belfast – work that is often not seen on this island at any other time of year.”

She admits that the calling is not without its challenges – even more so now, amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is all about the money. Arts funding in Northern Ireland is a difficult environment after years of cuts to public subsidy, and it is getting harder each year to raise the funds we need to support the festival and our year-round engagement work. The Covid-19 crisis has raised a whole extra set of issues, as we figure out how we can potentially run our activities with social distancing, closed theatres, and more.”

Still, she says that seeing the children’s faces light-up makes all of the struggles worthwhile.

“That buzz…it never tires. I recently watched a performance which a special school audience and they were having such a great time and laughing and squealing in delight. I just sat back smiling and thought ‘This is why we do what we do!’”