This week’s guest blog comes from Sarah Derrick, Head of Learning at Dundee Contemporary Arts
I have been reading ‘Funny Weather – art in an emergency’ by Olivia Laing (almost required reading for out times) and was struck by her use of the word ‘hospitality’ in the introduction, in relation to what artists do and can do for us. It made me realise that I have been using the term very much in relation to welcoming people into a venue, as a one-way flow of hospitality. Not having our venue for this period of time has opened up the idea of hospitality as being mutual, embodying caring, open-ness and working together. Due to the time that I have had to connect and talk to our community partners through this awful shared experience of COVID-19 I am thinking a lot more about ‘hospitality and about love, respect and challenge.
Back in March when our building closed like many other organisations we were put in a situation where as a staff team we had to respond, re-imagine, plan and re-design simultaneously whilst being ‘remote’ from each other and our audiences. I certainly felt adrift and a little unhinged at times but our DCA Director, Beth Bate, defined three principles to guide us: be honest and open; focus on the local (‘hyper-localism‘) and be compassionate and caring.
My gran’s saying, ‘you’re neither use nor ornament’ also kept running through my head – how could the Learning team be relevant and useful in a global pandemic? without our building, without the film, print and exhibition programmes. How could we connect and respond with our many and varied audiences? Would they want to connect? In what ways could we be caring? My thirty years’ of experience in the sector gave me neither help nor confidence at this time.
However, as I ran around Riverside Tescos on my way home from DCA on the day we closed, I was stopped twice by parents asking about what we would offer online, and when – that in a way set the tone for our online focus for ‘families‘. New Monday Makes ( step by step guides) and Weekend Activity Sheets all inspired by our Exhibition programme and Print Studio offer were created and went online from 30 March, closely followed by Wednesday Discovery Short films and a lesson or activity from our annual international film festival for young audiences. The aim being to support home schooling, inspire making and ground the activities in DCA exhibition programme and print making offer. We knew local families, community organisations and teachers were invested in our venue-based programme and we hoped that they would access the online provision. The activities do look great on social media and downloads have been in the range of 53 – 70 per week but we have yet to evaluate how they were used.
Alongside this new online offer it was essential to have non-digital activity, bearing in mind digital poverty and lack of access. Our collaborative PhD programme with the University of Dundee, Art at the Start, and PhD student Vicky Armstrong helped our thinking by speedily adapting her work from hands on sessions at DCA to ‘art packs to use at home’. Vicky’s research for the past two years has centred on how viewing and making art together enhances parent/child attachment in 0-3 year olds. For her, no venue instantly meant no art therapy groups, no public Messy Play sessions and therefore no PhD data gathering. To overcome this Vicky initially sent activities out to parents from all the groups , like recipes but became aware that the majority of homes involved did not have art materials – you can read more about this here : https://www.dca.org.uk/stories/article/adapting-art-at-the-start
Initial feedback from SAE feedback cards in the packs shows that families are bonding through making together, local project partners, Homestart and community health teams value the packs . A nurse reported that one of her families was using the pack daily and it was definitely helping the family cope with lockdown. To follow this up we have funded the piloting of Family Art Bags for older children, including basic art making materials, sketchbooks, and printed DCA and Monday Makes. We have responded more confidently to requests from a number of our partner community groups. We found a strand of relevance and are feeling useful again, delivering solidly on DCA’s mission, despite lockdown.
By the end of July we will have delivered nearly 400 packs and bags via key community partners such as Dundee International Women‘s Centre, the Maxwell Centre, Boomerang and local charity Dundee Bairns. At the moment this kind of provision is not sustainable funding-wise but we have been asking parents to contribute back their own activities as a follow up and potential route to keep ideas flowing. As a result we are re-designing our exhibition related activities hopefully with some of our partners involved ready for the soon to be coming DCA re-opening date in September.
Staying connected with our partners like Art at the Start and local groups has been mainly down to myself, as the rest of the team have been in and out of furlough and it has been so very heartening to have conversations that start with a genuine ‘how are you all doing?’ and ‘what on earth can we do?‘ rather than the sometimes more one-sided, although no less genuine offer of invitation to come to DCA. There have been many ideas and suggestions, poster activity trails, art and science picnics, sending artworks and messages to isolated older folk – some may happen, some may not and one or two will I am sure become part of our ‘new normal’. However, to move from the blank and useless feelings of March I needed that energy and spark that comes from our partner organisations and their communities and a new , more ‘hospitable’ approach on my part.
“Not only did these bags have brilliant resources to engage and play through art. In my opinion these bags were filled with, love, care, kindness and respect for children. “
Salma Hanif, Family Support Worker, Dundee International Womens‘ Centre