The Monthly talks to Eileen Branagh from Open Arts about adapting community arts practice to Lockdown and beyond

What were your thoughts when the Lockdown was announced?

There wasn’t really a space for us to feel anything. All our thoughts and energy had to be put into contacting the people we work with, we work with more than 150 people every week, and working out how we could support everyone.

We initially decided that we could take an extended Easter break because we would normally take a break around that time anyway. As we realised the Lockdown was going to last for a while we then had to think about how we would continue our work under difficult conditions.

Did you move your work online?

We weren’t the most IT literate organisation because everything we do is about having people come together. We are Open Arts and people of different abilities and different experiences come together to participate in our programmes and activities.

It really hit us that for the first time in 28 years we were going to be closed and that was quite a sad realisation. It did take us a little while to get our heads around the new situation.

What happened then?

The Choir was the first group which met over Zoom. We had, Bev McGeown, our musical director, move very quickly to keep that project going forward.

We then had to look at the other projects we facilitate. You have to keep in mind that the people we work with might have physical disabilities, or visual impairments or they might not have the dexterity to allow them to participate on something like Zoom. That took a little while to negotiate.

We started off catching up with our participants basically for well-being purposes; to see how people were coping. We then looked at the processes we needed to initiate to run our projects. We decided to look at running a term of our projects, 6 or 7 weeks, to see how that would go.

You worked on making a video for Make Music Day?

Our Gamelan* is a very unique set of instruments and when we are not in Lockdown the Gamelan group meets every Wednesday. Our musical director had to send everyone the tuning of the instruments that they would play and then people had to go round their house to find an object that would give them a similar sound. People used pipes or radiators or crystal ornaments, things like that, and they then worked on creating a piece of music for Make Music Day.

Luminous Soul, your dance group, kept working together?

Yes, we also had weekly rehearsals on Zoom and made a pre-recorded warm up video for the dance group, Luminous Soul.

Luminous Soul went on to create an original piece of choreography using Zoom to go along with an original piece of music by one of our dancers, Mary Lou McCord, which was then premiered on our Facebook page.

Luminous Soul – See video at link below

Facebook video

And you organised an Art Exhibition?

We run three visual arts groups. We brought all three groups together using Zoom. This involved people who are blind, people with visual impairments, people with learning difficulties and physical disabilities. Rather than an instructional video we paired the Creative Writing group with the Visual Arts group.

The participants in the Visual Arts group would pick a piece of writing from the Creative Writing group, that they wanted to work with and they were able to create something at home, a photograph or a painting which was connected to that piece of writing. That ended up being an ongoing virtual exhibition as we showcased the work through social media.

Open Arts – Art Exhibition – See Video at the link below

Facebook video

You also organised creative videos for children and young people?

There is an ongoing project through Children in Need where we work with children from Angel Eyes who are visually impaired and with children from Autism Initiatives as well. It simply wasn’t possible to work with them through Zoom over the past few months but we hope to start Zoom activities from September.  We engaged facilitators to create pre-recorded activity videos which have a series of activities for people to interact with at home. There are videos which offer dance, music, singing, and circus skills, about 15 videos altogether, and they have been really well received.

It does sound like there were obstacles to overcome regarding working online?

There were problems; Zoom isn’t always appropriate for the people we work with. We found a way to keep the choir working, again our musical director worked out ways to get the choir together and put together new music. And as I said we also found a way to keep the dance group going, our visual arts and writing groups meeting up and continuing to be creative.

Obviously we need to work face to face. That just can’t be overcome easily. There are simply difficulties regarding access to digital technology. That has to be addressed.

There were people who just didn’t feel comfortable using Zoom, there are fine technical problems for people who are blind or visually impaired as well.

We had to find ways of getting around those difficulties. Our staff had to get around their apprehensions about working online. And we had to find ways of getting people on to the digital platforms.

There is a movement now called “We shall not be removed” and part of the discussion within that movement is digital access for people with disabilities.

What about your funders. Have they been supportive?

We are core funded by the Arts Council and by Belfast City Council. We have been very happy with their approach and we haven’t had any issues regarding getting support. For us we have tried to maintain our staff and our artists’ payments as they transition from face to face working to digital facilitation. It is probably the case that Zoom and other digital production takes as much if not more preparation as it does for facilitation of face to face classes.

Children in Need have also been incredibly supportive so in that sense we have been very lucky that we haven’t had any difficulties regarding understanding of our situation and the changes that we needed to make to continue to support our participants.

Where to now?

I think we have managed the situation we found ourselves in well and we have managed to keep the people we work with engaged creatively.

Just on that point we have a short film coming out as part of our Core Programme with our Monday Drama Group. This was produced using Zoom and it will be available very soon.

We have been trying to highlight that the next stage for us will be managing the reopening and how we go about that safely. Those discussions and the guidance so far has reflected our thoughts on how we do that and takes into account the needs of our core constituency. We will not be starting live workshops for the foreseeable future and we are lined up to deliver online again from September.

On that basis we are genuinely very happy with how we responded and also how our participants’ needs are being considered in the guidance regarding reopening, when we can.

*Open Arts owns a magnificent hand-carved Javanese Gamelan orchestra – an extraordinary collection of melodic percussion instruments from Indonesia – comprising gongs, metallophones and drums of various shapes and sizes.

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.