How are Arts and Culture organisations adapting their work through Covid-19?

Published: 18 December 2020 
Author: Naima Khan 
A young man is DJ-ing at the V&A, with a t-shirt on his decks saying 'dance for refuge'. In the background, there are marble pillars and marble statues from the V&A's collection
Counterpoints Arts. Photo credit: Marcia Chandra

This is the first of a series of essays looking at aspects of PHF’s strategy through the work we support. In this essay Naima Khan talks with arts leaders who have revisited their core values to help their organisations collaborate and adapt in a challenging period.

Kate McGrath, Director and Co-Founder of Fuel is listing the range of collaborators her theatre company works with. She lists every type of organisation from Sadler’s Wells to village halls, with scientists and human rights organisations along the way. Fuel is a theatre company that produces live performance across the UK with a focus on working with communities that are underserved. Today I’m speaking to Kate about how Fuel forms these collaborations in a way that is considerate of power dynamics and values the voice and agency of each collaborator.

Kate believes listening skills are vital to this. Sometimes,” she says, the assumption is that some people have agency and power and they can give it to others who don’t. But everyone has agency and power, it’s just that some don’t listen to others very well. Often, in practice that proper listening means putting your money and trust into those you’re working with. That could be allocating budget and designing decision making structures so that trust can exist in meaningful, tangible ways.”

Young man sits in a barber chair as he gets his hair cut with clippers. He's wearing a green, white and grey polo shirt.
Barber Shop Chronicles, Fuel Theatre. Photo credit: Dean Chalkley.

I want to understand how power dynamics can be navigated too. We’re producers,” Kate explains, with communities or artists, where we have more power, our job is to listen to what they’re trying to do, understand how it works, then think about how what we’re trying to do might help that.”

And when working with the bigger institutions? In a way we’re facilitators and brokers of relationships,” she says, when we’re talking to partners, we’re trying to see if there’s alignment with our values. With institutions, we need to feel like we can work well and productively and have room to grow and learn.”

This is key to Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s emphasis on thoughtful collaboration described in their 2020 Strategy. I ask Chief Executive Moira Sinclair what people should consider when they address this in their applications for funding.

For the bigger organisations,” she says, we want to understand how they know that their work is thoughtfully targeted with a sense of knowing and understanding the communities that they’re trying to serve. How do they recognise the power they have?

For smaller organisations with established relationships to the communities they serve, the Foundation is interested in how their expertise can influence work being done in their sector. In many cases, their greatest impact is in informing and changing practice widely, as well as their local successes,” Moira says.

Counterpoints Arts sits between the two distinctions, neither a small organisation nor a large institution. They produce art by and about refugees and people who migrate. Director Almir Koldzic and his team have prioritised developing their understanding of their community through the pandemic with a survey, to get a sense of what artists were experiencing and how they were coping. They have illustrated responses in an infographic. We have gained a deeper understanding of the ecosystem and we’re now thinking about maintaining or evolving our role in it.”

Black and white graphic that explains the impact of the pandemic on artists
Photo credit: Counterpoints Arts

Almir also notes that the current context we’re working in has been shaped by the response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the resurgence in energy around anti-racist activism.

We commissioned research,” he says, to look into how the arts, migration and racial justice sectors are responding to all of it. The research,” which is underway but not yet complete, looks into the challenges and the barriers to cross-sector collaboration and explores opportunities as well.”

Those cross-sector partnerships and the focus on sharing is familiar to Alan Lane, Artistic Director of Slung Low, a theatre company based in The Holbeck in Leeds. When arts venues closed at the start of the pandemic, Slung Low started operating a food bank out of theirs.

There are often gnarly situations,” Alan explains, when we realise that our own artistic expression is not important. We’ve been able to go back to our principles and go, ah! I see! It’s not really about us.’

One principle we have is Everybody gets what they want but nobody gets to stop other people getting what they want’ and another is Do what’s useful and what’s kind.’”

Yellow and green bus that says 'Cultural Community College'. A group of people attend an outdoor performance in front of a large cream stucco building. There's a wooden spherical sculpture on the right.
Performance of The Space Shed by Unlimited. Photo credit: Slung Low

In a similar vein to Fuel, their values centre listening and acknowledgment of the diverse and divergent voices of their community. Those values also bring their own complications and mean Slung Low needs to have established networks to get things done.

Their legal structure helps too. They are a private limited company so they can make profitable work that does not have to meet the government’s definition of charitable purpose’. The profits can then go into programmes like the food bank.

Régis Cochefert, Director of Grants Programmes at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, explains the practicalities involved in granting funds to a company:

We are happy to fund organisations that are not charities but as a charity ourselves, we are limited in the funding that we are allowed, by law, to offer to non-charities. These include companies limited by guarantee, not-for-profit companies and community interest companies. We can only support work with charitable purpose and public benefit as defined by the government.”

Being a company gives Slung Low a greater degree of flexibility when they need to pivot their work. Our structure means we get to do whatever it takes to do the things that need doing. That’s important because applying our principles creates a more complex situation than their initial simplicity allows.”

A different kind of complexity faces Graeae Theatre Company, known for its radical and evolving work on the inclusion of D/​deaf and disabled artists. Graeae centre their approach on the social model of inclusion. This is about understanding people’s lived realities,” explains Artistic Director Jenny Sealey. What do they actually experience when they want to create something, what processes do they rely on, what resources do they have access to? You have to build in time to know the artists you’re working with if you want to understand how they experience things.”

Painting of a dancer performing on silks.
Aerial performer Tiiu Mortley, Graeae Theatre. Photo credit: Kerry Hyndman

Jenny and I are talking about maintaining social justice principles when work has to shift unexpectedly for example, by bringing work online quickly. This focus on maintaining principles when making adaptations is reflected in the Foundation’s latest strategy which acknowledges that some of the values and approaches we hold can be undermined by digital processes.” The Foundation is interested in supporting projects that… seek to redress the inequalities that the digital world can perpetuate.”

To this point, Graeae’s Executive Director, Kevin Walsh, emphasises the need to design processes that consider the systems surrounding an individual or a community. Understand, for example, what is practically needed to get online, to get hold of documents, to make claims for support, and understand who has and hasn’t got access to those things.”

No one knows what the full impact of the pandemic will be on art and culture in the UK, and every organisation will have unique challenges. The people I’ve spoken to don’t have a road map for others, but they do show the benefit of returning to their core values and reaching out to others, practising thoughtful collaboration.

All this can all be tough to convey in the limited word counts required in written applications and the Foundation recognises the need to reflect their emphasis on meaningful relationships in their own practice. We know we are sometimes intimidating and difficult to approach,” Moira noted when we spoke, and we are trying to make that better. So, ring us, start with a call.”

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Director, Inclusive Mosque Initiative