What has been clear during this crisis is that more people than ever before have sought comfort through the Arts, and we need to find ways to build on this recognition of cultural value to health and well-being both within the context of the University’s staff and students but also within the wider communities across Leicester and beyond.
The Digital Revolution
In a few short weeks we all had to embrace new technology as we moved onto digital and social platforms. These platforms have offered us the potential for greater reach and connectivity than ever before, and by necessity we have tried new approaches in terms of programming, marketing, partnerships and collaborations, generating income, training, and community engagement. It is already clear that it is unlikely we will return to more traditional patterns of working after this crisis with a greater than ever emphasis on sustainability and better work/life balance connected to how we view and plan travel, meetings, programming and distribution.
Within the context of disability and inclusion it has both increased barriers for access but also opened opportunities to increase access through new blended approaches to technology.
Increasing our virtual reach
Moving our Creative Learning, exhibitions, performing arts and Learning and Outreach programmes into blended learning and engagement models has opened new routes for distribution and income generation we are keen to explore further. Increasing online content has brought us new audiences and opportunities to extend the life of our commissions and exhibitions whilst enabling us to animate our website with more artist led content. Moving forward, if resources allowed, we consider a more blended approach to artistic presentation between live and digital content makes a lot of sense in terms of improving access and inclusion
We are reaching significant new audiences –during the Comedy Festival alone our commissions had over 21,000 views with over 40,000 viewing our performing arts programme including our new bite size, micro commissions, Unexpected Tales. With a very small physical space at the AAC that seats a maximum of 70 people these digital audiences highlight the potential to connect artists more widely to new audiences who, for whatever reason, have not felt able or confident to attend our venue before.
We think, therefore, that there is potential added value for artists to be supported to continue to create tailored digital content but we are debating whether, in the future, simply recording performances designed for Live Audiences may not be as artistically and creatively as desirable other than for archival purposes. A lot more research is required to properly understand what the appetite will be after Lock Down for digital work and we hope to work with our cultural partners to properly understand this.
COVID prevented us from supporting artists through normal routes such as access to our rehearsal spaces, touring and exhibitions so we are keen to re-start these as soon as it is safe to do so as we are aware of the financial hardship of many artists and small companies across the country.
At the start of COVID we set up Studio Attenborough to support artists and societies to record content as well as supported the distribution of small scale shows that had already been recorded.
We quickly realised there were benefits in providing financial support to artists by investing in micro and major commissioning of online, artist led, creative content, and we want to build on this experience through our ongoing Studio Attenborough programme.
Working with Disability Arts Online our visual arts commissions for disabled artists attracted over 80 applications and resulted in 5 artists selected to explore their artistic practice during these challenging times without the expectation of creating finished artwork. Mentoring and professional development are at the heart of this initiative.
This opportunity to support artists to have time to research and explore ideas, not necessarily connected to delivering physical performances and exhibitions, feels like a potentially exciting role for us moving forward.
Our partnership with 14/48 led to experimentation with online performance, collaborating with 117 artists and generating over 19,000 views. Our new digital offer for families also included regular Baby Discos’ live streamed into homes, tailored family friendly programming during the Comedy Festival and Spark with our first 14/48 theatre event created by children a huge success.
Creative Case and Well Being
COVID-19 has highlighted the value and importance of the arts on people mental health and well-being, and we were pleased to support our partners delivering Word spoken word nights to move online to continue to support people with mental health issues. Nevertheless, we know that our regular users have missed the company and contact offered by our venue as a safe place.
Audience feedback suggests however that for some of the most vulnerable and those with mobility impairment enabling them to connect with high quality artistic product online has been very much appreciated. However digital poverty means we must remain aware not everyone has access to computers or smartphones and that we should all consider other ways of engaging people to remain inclusive. During COVID-19 our education team have provided resource materials that is being posted to families to work alongside digital content.
We have developed a stronger role within the university in support student mental health during Lock Down and we were commissioned to deliver online arts content as well as our regular Wild Card Wednesday activities with audiences increasing every week with some of the highest engagement figures for student facing activity. Moving forward this will become a major plank of our work
Our work with schools and young people
We had to completely rethink how we could deliver our ground-breaking work with disabled children and young people. We created over 300 physical gallery resource packs and interactive Prezi for Tim Neath and Kelly Richardson’s exhibitions, and pre-recorded sensory stories to support families during lock down. We collaborated with and commissioned artists to explore digital outreach in new ways. This included the new Watch This Space commissions for Lori Hopkins and Infused Dance, producing new, finished performances, filmed to be experienced online, with live streamed workshops to enable children to respond to themes of the pieces.
We launched an online Teen Club for our Inclusive Youth Arts members aged 13-18 in response to consultation with families and begun live streaming our monthly Wheelchair Dance sessions which are working well.
Our START project continues to be extended until we can deliver face to face in schools, with increasing elements of the project being adapted for home learning – including Arts Award delivery.
We supported 1 young person with SEND to complete a Bronze Arts Award from home, and a whole class of 16 year olds from Ashmount School to complete their Bronze Arts Award – with much of the artist-led prompts/challenges being pre-recorded with physical assets and materials sent to the school.
We adapted our Little Inventors Project with 3 of our SENsory Atelier schools – developing the first Little Inventors iteration tailored specifically for SEN schools, to be delivered remotely. This includes an interview with Tim Peake which has been curated as an Arts Award resource which will be shared nationally; partnerships with Engineering companies and the new UK Space Centre which will result in a touring exhibition of special schools. This is the highest quality learning and engagement development which is developing new ways of working for all involved.
We launched our Joint Practice Development programme to provide teachers dynamic Reggio Inspired development which allows them to meet with other schools and teachers to share learning and experiences. Our Next Gen Young Ambassadors Programme with young people is now delivered entirely online and has resulted in commissions with artists that explore the lived experiences of shielding and isolation during this difficult time.
In another example AAC worked with Spark within the context of the CEP working group to identify an opportunity to work collaboratively with schools on responses to a Recovery Curriculum with funding secured and a programme delivered within weeks.
Another positive has been the relative ease to connect with peers across the country and to create new networks of communication with freelancers, venues and other organisations. Moving forward the environmental and cost benefits of continuing to work collaboratively on in will be important we attended weekly meetings set up by In Good Company to demonstrate our support to freelancers as well as setting up our own Nurture network to support freelancers wishing to work within community settings
We took a lead in bringing together a network of Leicester based NPOs which culminated last March in the creation of a shared cultural prospectus. Post Covid this network has been reshaped into a senior level action group working collaboratively on line to explore partnership working in important areas around Equality and Access, Building Audiences and reaching Children and Young People.
Responses to world events have been quickly pooled such as the new collaboration that emerged in response to Black Lives Matter across the Midlands with Directors of all the key arts organisations coming together to identify options for addressing racism and removing barriers to employment, programming and policy making – a conversation mirrored within the Leicester NPO network too. Over this coming year there is an appetite to develop joint initiatives to develop more opportunities for culturally diverse people within our organisations with a long term aim of diversifying leadership roles through the newly published Black Lives Matter Framework document.
The Leicester Visual Arts Network which AAC Chairs has continued to meet remotely and was able to continue to deliver its annual Art Week online. Moving forward we are keen to build connections and shared programming,
A greater digital output has enabled more people to view our artistic product than ever before without having to leave their homes. New ways of working are emerging linked to improving the environment and reducing travel, reducing paper based marketing, working SMARTER, flexible working and questioning how we plan large scale networking meetings or conferences
Risk Assessments, Insurance, contracts and customer services were all radically altered and made more robust to take into account the hard lessons learnt through COVID.
There are lessons to learn about improving customer experience – less crowded exhibition spaces, more informal approaches to performing spaces and maintaining a blend of live and digital work moving forward whilst recognising that digital poverty impacts on the ability of the most disadvantaged to access work. Over the coming year we will be championing Pay as you Can not only to woo back nervous audiences but also in recognition of the financial hardship facing many as a direct result of COVID rather than returning to traditional ticket prices.
Within a university context we increased our profile and reputation in playing an important role during COVID by supporting the mental health of students and young people. The lock down has exposed how vulnerable and isolated some people and students can become. Mental health issues abound. Digital product can help connect people and contribute to the sense of community and engagement but it is clear that people will want a return to real experience shared with others. We want to build on our advocacy campaigns in linking the arts to well-being both within the university and to wider communities.