The Monthly interviews Phillip Campbell from Down Community Arts about the impact of the pandemic and the future of Community Arts in Newry, Mourne and Down

How were you impacted by Lockdown?

As with most people everything came to a sudden stop. We are a very small organisation so a lot of our work is carried out in partnership with other organisations, and we work closely with community groups like the Rural Community Network, statutory bodies like the Newry, Mourne and Down Council, the Education Authority and local schools, so when they closed that meant everything we were doing closed down as well.

What that meant was that our annual programme, or at least the projects we had committed to for the year, was not going to be completed. We had to spend a bit of time thinking how we could restructure the work we had intended to do.

Was that a straightforward process?

Well, yes and no. In the first period of Lockdown things were very difficult. Our priorities are working with older people and people with disabilities. They are two of the most vulnerable groups in normal times and especially so when the Pandemic hit. It was not going to be possible to carry out our work, not even if we moved online.

There were times when we would get things in place only for the Lockdown to be extended or the restrictions such that our work, which really has to be carried out face to face, simply wasn’t possible.

How did the funders respond?

Firstly our Board of Trustees were very supportive, and the funders were very understanding. Because of our history and our longstanding credibility delivering these kinds of programmes, the funding bodies knew that we were trying to find avenues to be able to make things happen.

They also knew that we had a history of engaging with the groups we work with, and the parents and carers of people in these groups. Our work is not just with the participants but with their parents and carers as well and we know they were affected deeply by Lockdown.

You work in rural areas as well?

That was something else that made things very difficult. There is the isolation of people in rural communities, we couldn’t travel to where people were located and there is often such poor Broadband connections that again moving online wasn’t an option.

Not every older person has access to a smartphone or a laptop to connect with us online. That certainly limited our options.

Effectively you ground to a complete halt?

Pretty much. When restrictions were lifted during the summer we were able to programme a few things with children with disabilities, but we still were not able to programme work for older participants.

Because we are a small organisation, one full-time member of staff and one part-time member of staff, and because we work in partnership a lot of the time, we could see our partners doing things like distributing food parcels to older people, or delivering activity books, as well as working on getting people to exercise and things like that, and we are not set up to do that.

We did feel under pressure at one point where we were asking ourselves what could we do to support the arts and artists in our local community as well as show that the arts could provide community support.

What did you decide to do?

We focused on supporting artists and we looked to developing large scale public arts projects in the Newry, Mourne and Down area. We asked the groups we were working with to help us with a design brief for our artists and then we organised to create art in public spaces.

Was that successful?

Yes, it was very successful. Firstly we know from the feedback we received that people in our communities felt uplifted when they saw the public artworks going up. They felt that something was happening and so when people were out walking or going to the shops they could see these new artworks being created.

Our organisation starting working with new organisations, creating new partnerships, and I think it would be reasonable to say that we probably would never have thought to work with some of the organisations previously.

That sounds like a great result?

We didn’t plan on these kind of things happening but when we working on a large public art piece someone walked past who was part of the Education Authority and they got in touch asking us how we could work with them, so schools and statutory bodies started to connect with us.

Someone from the Policing Community Safety Partnership saw what we were doing and we are looking at a project with them, the PSNI and the local Community Association.

How did that impact your organisation?

We were always about using creativity to help individuals and of course this benefits the wider public but this is through face to face engagement with individuals. Now we were doing some things the other way round, where we were looking at creative projects which are designed for the general public, and they affect the wider community and from there individuals are benefiting from being part of that community.

What are your plans as you move out of Lockdown?

I think the organisation has moved towards a two-tiered approach. During Lockdown we talked to the artists and we talked to the groups that we worked with and we asked them what they thought was the best way to engage and if we were able to move online, how would those activities be delivered. That sort of ran in the background because as I said it wasn’t possible much of the time but we know if there is another Lockdown we can do some of that kind of work.

There were a lot of issues with online work from technical questions from the artists to how do you maintain people’s interests when a lot of what they were doing was moved online and so they really didn’t want to take on more online activities, or we would have established a workshop programme and 15 people would be at the first workshop but this would drop away very quickly. That actually meant that we were reducing engagement not increasing it.

We are keeping that in mind as we are moving back into activity now. We are working in partnership with County Down Rural Network and we are part of an Arts and Older People project where we are touring the local area with older men who are participating in a Covid safe way doing sketches of the countryside.

That project is working really well and we are finding now that we have to a lot of discussions before we start the work so that the organisations we are partnering with know exactly what we need, exactly what we are going to be doing and exactly what the benefits of the work will be.

How about your own situation. How did you cope?

My partner is a social worker for people with disabilities so she was out working throughout Lockdown. I was at home with our two year old and that was certainly a challenge when you are working from home. I simply moved my workday into the evening, from 4pm onwards.

At the beginning everything seemed so sudden and because we have an office in a building and all our arts supplies and gear is in that office and initially I walked out of the office thinking I would be back in in a couple of weeks. And because we aren’t key holders to the larger building we only went back once in all that time.

I had to learn, just as many people did, how to work with very limited access to any equipment or arts supplies.

Are you feeling positive about the future?

Yes very much. I don’t think everything will go back to exactly the way it was and I think that we have discovered some new ways of approaching community arts that I wouldn’t want to lose. Rather, I want to expand on the new relationships we have built but also the new approaches we have developed.

The one thing that we need to look at is how artists can be supported in a more substantial way. We have found that during Lockdown a lot of the artists we worked with have left the arts and have decided to look for other jobs. There is a severe shortage of artists now and that is going to be a problem moving forward. We will need to address that situation. But apart from that we are positive that we have a lot to look forward to.

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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.