Managing an Arts Organisation in the Midst of Lockdown
Our mission states that ‘ARC is an organisation working from its venue…’ – not that we are a venue. This has felt more important than ever in lockdown. The strength of ARC is its relationships, not its physical assets.
We’ve gone from being an organisation which runs a building welcoming 110,000 people per year, employs 60+ staff and generates 80% of its income through sales and fundraising to a group of seven staff working remotely on reduced hours.
I wanted to use this blog to explain not just what we have been doing, but how and why we have done it.
Focusing on what matters most
In those first days of lockdown, when many of us were experiencing a sense of loss, we tried to focus on what was most important. With everything thrown up in the air, it was easy to feel paralysed by uncertainty. We wanted to be clear and confident in our actions and our communication, both internally and externally – providing what certainty we could. Saying ‘until further notice’ didn’t feel helpful, whereas ‘we’re closed until XX date’ gave everyone something specific to hold onto. Of course, we’ve had to revise that date, and continue to do so, but psychologically, it removed a sense of waiting for information and provided short-term focus, allowing people to get on with other things in the meantime. I believe providing clarity is an important part of leadership in crisis management.
We recognised the most important thing was to maintain the relationships that make up the organisation – to prove that we weren’t just a building.
It is testament to the passion and commitment of ARC’s staff team that so many of those furloughed were more worried about not being able to continue their valuable work than having to take a pay cut. The Job Retention Scheme has been a lifeline to us, and to many organisations, but it is hard to have your job taken away from you as well as so many other things. Keeping in touch with furloughed staff and making sure information and decisions are shared on a regular basis has been key to ensuring we retain that passion and commitment, and that all staff feel valued whether they are working or not.
Maintaining our mission for our communities
For those staff still working, the focus has been on keeping in touch with our communities. We have literally made thousands of phonecalls to ticket holders, participants, community users, artists, promoters and practitioners, to apologise, explain, reschedule but most of all, to listen. Many people have wanted to talk about their situation, to share the challenges they are experiencing but also to ask how we are, a wonderful reminder that these relationships are reciprocal.
We were particularly conscious of our regular participants – those people who come to ARC at least once a week. We know ARC is a lifeline for many of them. It is the place they come to feel at home, to spend time with other people, to be creative and to be respected. Most importantly, it is a place they come to contribute, to have their creativity valued and validated.
‘We ARConnected’ has been our way of replicating this: a programme that invites people to contribute their creative endeavours around a new theme each fortnight. We have been supporting people to engage by phone, post and email and received the most amazing artworks in response. All the creations that people contribute will eventually be exhibited at ARC, to celebrate how our communities came together and connected creatively throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
We’ve also adapted Staying Out, our programme for socially isolated older people, and are now delivering it remotely. The programme is funded by Stockton Borough Council’s Public Health team, and its continuation during lockdown has seen us take on responsibility for weekly welfare checks alongside supporting creativity. Creating Together, our regular programme for asylum seekers, refugees and people who have experienced homelessness, resumes this month, with bi-monthly online sessions run by Displace Yourself Theatre.
Supporting artists and audiences
We have held a place for artists during this time too – retaining our Producer specifically to ensure we could support artists and freelancers who have seen their income disappear overnight. We have helped write funding applications, advise on dealing with venues, discussed how to reimagine future plans, and again, most importantly, we’ve listened. Three of ARC’s productions were due to tour in the March-June 2020 period, so we have been working with artists and venues to reschedule 50+ performances.
We are also working to find new ways of sharing the work of our artists. This film by Daniel Bye and Boff Whalley was released last week, featuring a new song sung by local residents as they walked to Roseberry Topping (made pre-lockdown). Siege by Vici Wreford-Sinnott, co-commissioned with HOME in Manchester, will be broadcast online soon. We’re also excited to invite audiences to help create a show, as part of FUEL’s international tour of Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, showing for ARC’s audiences on Thursday 18 June.
It’s an ongoing process, temporarily working without our building and finding different ways to deliver our work. We hope by continuing to listen to our communities, we can get better at it.
Thank you for talking to us. Our building might be closed, but ARC is still here.
By Annabel Turpin, Stockton Arts Centre
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