Is Socially Distanced Social Responsibility Possible?

Social responsibility is part of Bluecoat’s core purpose. We have survived many challenges and the basis of our resilience has always been a deep sense of responsibility to our civic role.

We are a working arts centre with a community of artists, creative businesses, a public garden, galleries and performance spaces.

We engage offsite with communities, care homes and historic buildings.

And all our projects orbit around our building as a kind of ‘mothership’, a tangible, material space in the city centre.

So when the world locked down, how could we continue? How could we socially distance projects where connection, relationship building, and communication were key?

The challenges were considerable but not unsurmountable – here’s how we tackled some of them.

Blue Room

For more than ten years Blue Room has helped adults with learning disabilities develop their artistic practice. When lockdown hit, our weekly face to face sessions had to stop. But it was vital we kept connection with members – so we developed ‘Blue Room @ Home’.  

Taking Blue Room online meant Blue Zoom sessions, home deliveries of materials and worksheets, WhatsApp groups and monthly welfare calls. We also secured funding for devices and connectivity (Wi-Fi hubs and data) to engage with digitally excluded members.

Digital exclusion is a major issue in learning disabled communities, so welcoming an average of 16 members to each Zoom session was a big success!

Where the Arts Belong

The Centre for Collaborative Innovation on Dementia at Liverpool John Moores University told us that our partnership with Belong villages on dementia and the arts, Where the Arts Belong ‘helped to arrest decline and perhaps stabilise the quality of life of recipients of the intervention’. So we had to keep the programme live through lockdown.

So Instead we trained care staff to deliver small arts sessions as part of their daily contact with residents. It was an intensive process, but the staff are really embracing the challenge of arts facilitation; as you can see from the clip below:

PIVOT

Developing ideas, connecting with peers and testing work is a huge part of artist development and we’ve done everything we can to keep our onsite studios open in a safe way.

Before Covid, we were looking to create a new artist development scheme in partnership with Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. The challenges we’ve seen artists face over the past 12 months has brought into even sharper focus, the need for the scheme.

With a specific focus on mid-career contemporary artists, PIVOT will provide bursaries and a programme that supports their practice.

During lockdown we had to take applications, conversations and exchange online but have continued to mentor and support the first five PIVOT artists.

Bluecoat @ home

When our doors have been closed we’ve been committed to keeping open opportunities to engage with the arts.  Weekly newsletters have connected audiences with new digital artwork, music playlists, and film premieres. We’ve also produced weekly activities for children and families to inspire creativity and help with learning at home.

It’s been a difficult year to lead an organisation where social responsibility is part of who we are, but it’s been difficult to do. But we’ve found new ways to connect and continued to reach the communities where our impact is felt the most. Post pandemic this will be more important than ever. Bluecoat will have an important role in supporting Liverpool to tackle the many different costs of the virus and the arts in navigating the challenging months and years ahead.  

Mary Cloake is the CEO of Liverpool Bluecoat and a member of the ISR External Advisory Board.

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Photo by Arthur John Picton

COVID Creativity: new possibilities or a fresh challenge?

When Arts Council England launched its 10-year strategy in January, no-one could have guessed what was just around the corner.

‘Let’s Create’ is a strategy full of hope; about opening up opportunities, developing shared experiences and recognising the creative potential in each of us.

COVID-19 has challenged us all, on a professional and personal level. Cultural institutions have been in a state of flux: open, shut, welcoming, hibernating.  At times it’s been a battle just to exist and sustain, never mind create and engage.

Now, there is a vaccine on the horizon, and with that comes the hope of everyday life resuming. So what effect will the pandemic have had on the vision set out in Let’s Create?

At its core Let’s Create is a holistic strategy. It is based on the principle that the best way to build a creative and cultural country is to do it with, rather than for, its people.

As the pandemic unfolded and the UK went into lockdown, personal artistic endeavour did flourish for many. Whether it was brought on by the gift of free time, a search for meaning, or a need to come together. We saw zoom choirs, painted rainbows, and stories and songs from young and old. Culture and creativity gave hope, an escape, and a lens through which to try and understand a rapidly changing world.

Research and experience have long shown that creative activity can reduce loneliness, help physical and mental wellbeing, and build community.

So will the pandemic have stirred a lasting interest in the arts? Or will society shuffle back into the usual ebb and flow and consign ‘COVID creativity’ to a historical footnote?

Time will tell, but there are undoubted opportunities for arts organisations to engage with new audiences and new artists, maintaining the momentum of this popular rediscovery of personal creative practice.  Let’s Create could play a significant role here.

Of course creativity and the arts don’t exist in a vacuum, and as we emerge from the pandemic it will be against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, struggling towns and cities, and increased unemployment. As is too often the case, in a crisis it is the disadvantaged and vulnerable who suffer the most, and this will amplify the challenges we face in reaching all those with whom we seek to engage.

As Let’s Create outlines, the cultural sector will only ever be as strong as the talent on which it is built. Even before COVID many creative practitioners and cultural workers, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, D/deaf or disabled people, and those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, struggled to sustain financially viable careers. We must hope this pool of talent we benefited so much from pre-pandemic, will still be in a position to collaborate with us when the dust has settled. We must do all we can to support them.

As we look to the future there is much to reflect on and learn. At Bluecoat we have long been committed to opening up possibilities for visitors, audiences, artists and practitioners of all kinds. Our vision for the next ten years is to shift our focus and invite the public into the artistic process. The post-pandemic climate will undoubtedly deliver challenges, but we’ll be looking to harness the wave of personal creativity and translate that into new audiences that are active and engaged.

MARY CLOAKE is CEO of the Bluecoat Liverpool and a member of the ISR External Advisory Board.

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Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash