The Monthly interviews Eileen Branagh from Open Arts about the work of the organisation post pandemic – Part 1

Last time we spoke to you Open Arts was dealing with the pandemic. How do you feel the organisation coped through that period?

I think we went into Lockdown a bit earlier than the official announcement. Our last face to face, in person, activity was on Friday March 13th 2020 so by the time the Lockdown was officially announced, our choir was already on ZOOM.

Within the next couple of weeks we had most of our groups trying out what was then a new thing. And the process began of working out how we could include everyone.

I think we coped amazingly well especially considering we had a full-time staff member and two part-time members of staff.

It seemed at the time like it was a learning process that had to be fast tracked?

We have a lot of blind or partially sighted people who work with us and we had to do a lot of working out how to allow those people to be included. How could we get them involved in visual arts through using ZOOM.

Another part of our work was dealing with the length of the pandemic. We thought we would be back working face to face by September 2020, and of course that didn’t happen. We asked ourselves at that point how do we go about capturing all the work that we did and that ended up being a film, “Living in a Box” which is [was] going to be shown in the Docs Ireland Festival on the 1st July.

How do you feel the participants perceived the work of your organisation?

Our organisation is a participant lead organisation. Fifty per cent of our board also participate in our programmes, so there is no doubt that what we were achieving was seen as a lifeline by our participants.

Even our members of staff felt that there was an essential connection between us and our participants. It allowed us to be motivated, in difficult circumstances, to keep going with our work and with our projects.

You have talked about the difficulties with shifting to an online orientation. Did those get resolved over time?

We spent a lot of time explaining to our participants that this is the way we had to work. There was a lot of individual, one to one time explaining how these processes worked. Some of our participants had never even had a smartphone before the pandemic, so we just worked with people, patiently, finding ways to make the projects happen.

As an example, our Gamelan project, where people learn to play musical instruments; in order to make that project work each person in that group came to us when the rules had been relaxed for a little while, and they selected an instrument and they took it home. People had a physical piece of the Gamelan with them and that made things a lot easier for people.

Once we had everyone on ZOOM it worked really well. In fact there are people now who actually prefer to be on ZOOM, For some people being online can be, if you are disabled, actually more inclusive than if you have to travel with all the difficulties that entails sometimes.

What happened when the restrictions eased later on in that year?

We started to use blended learning where we would have some people into the centre, we would maintain social distancing and make sure we had good hygiene protocols, and some on ZOOM on a large screen television.

The organisation has a core programme, which includes the writers’ groups, drama, the Gamelan, the choir, the dance group and we also have other work we do as well.

We used the blended approach and we are slowly getting back to our face to face work. This all came together in a film project, “Living in a box” which documents everything we did, how people coped, the challenges we faced and it has brought all the disparate parts of the programme together to show all the work the organisation and the participants did together during Lockdown.

See more information about the work of Open Arts here:

part two of this interview is here

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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.