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14 April 2020

Participatory arts in an age of physical distancing – responses from the Arts & Mental Health sector

Harriet Lowe
Five organisations told us how they are continuing to deliver creative sessions to participants, how they are trying to bridge the digital divide at short notice, and what they are learning from the COVID-19 experience.

We asked five organisations from the Arts & Mental Health sector to share how they are continuing to provide creative activities to participants and engage with their communities when no one can attend the face to face sessions which are often a lifeline for people.

Contributing are: Creative Alternatives, Fallen Angels Dance Theatre, Restoration Trust, Magic Carpet Arts for Health and Shallal. And here are their responses.

We are keen to add to more examples from Arts & Mental Health organisations. If you’d like to send us a brief outline of what you’re doing – or write a blog for us with more detail, please do get in touch.

Delivering creative sessions to ALL participants

We are committed to continual provision for all our artists and not being in the same space together isn’t going to stop that!

Joanna Willis, Shallal

All the organisations we spoke to are continuing to run their creative workshops for their existing communities and participants using digital/online methods – but also trying to find ways to include those for whom this is harder.

Creative Alternatives are creating weekly videos that encourage creative play with materials that people can easily access from home, e.g. mandalas with natural materials and food stuff, paper cutting and collaging, wet media in the kitchen, as well as creative writing. Participants are being encouraged to upload their creations to their online platform. They are also planning to host live sessions and chats where artists are online, encouraging people to share their ideas and experiences and inspire each other.

Creative Alternatives have written a blog for us about their online provision here. Like Noise Solution who also got in touch and operate mostly digitally, they started delivering sessions online in 2017.

Fallen Angels are delivering five interactive creative movement sessions online each week (via zoom) so that participants can continue to develop their artistic & physical skills at home.

Magic Carpet have created a blog with work-from-home ideas and videos from artists who regularly work for Magic Carpet. Participants are encouraged to email images of their art to be shared on social media and featured in galleries on their ‘work-from-home’ blog. They are also putting ideas for creative activities out on their social media channels for the wider world.

Restoration Trust: one project run by the Trust is archaeology, creativity and wellbeing programme called Burgh Castle Almanac. It now has weekly hour-long Zoom meetings with up to 11 people. Art materials are posted to group members between meetings to form part of the conversation. Things made from the session are posted on a  private Facebook group by 6pm that evening to keep the energy flowing. Experts and creatives from previous sessions (archaeologists, writers, artists) may be invited to join the conversations as people get more relaxed with the new format.

Shallal are delivering the creative activities for its different creative groups (various art forms) through a variety of means, from post to Zoom and online streaming. The approach varies with both bespoke suggestions to suit particular individuals’ needs and ideas for whole groups sent out via emails and blogs to all. Joanna Willis, Shallal’s Creative Director, is sending out a weekly playlist of ideas and there is a section for others to give creative their suggestions and links.

Shallal also has an inclusive studio space in Redruth. Studio artists are painting at home with support and suggestions from staff. Staff artists are creating videos demonstrating activities – and they are looking to expand this through partnerships and commissioning artists (e.g. there will soon be a short film by artist Ruby Bateman of her approach to still life).

Dealing with the digital divide

A wide range of digital platforms are being deployed: Facebook groups, Zoom, Whatsapp, Instagram, as well as bespoke platforms. Organisations are trying to ensure that those who don’t have the same access – whether it’s no internet, limited data or lack of confidence in using digital tools – are not excluded:

  • Creative Alternatives are developing Creative Home packs that will be posted out with a range of arts and wellbeing focused activities doable from home.
  • Restoration Trust note that they are trying to be flexible about contact methods, but are also looking into how they can help people get the resources they need to join online (e.g. by providing hardware, software and friendly advice) and are exploring ways they could fund this.
  • Fallen Angels are inviting participants who can’t join live video sessions to share photos and videos with other members on a private Facebook group.

Supporting participants beyond workshops

Laura Drysdale of the Restoration Trust says that while they are not a mental health service:

Participants’ wellbeing is our first concern and if it comes to it, we will do all we can to help with peoples’ immediate needs.

Some practical actions include:

  • Restoration Trust are keeping in regular contact with participants, and also running their digital sessions at the same times as face-to-face sessions to maintain a sense of routine and continuity. Shallal are also trying to check in with participants at the same time as their normal sessions.
  • Fallen Angels have a Buddy Support system which will involve making sure participants have daily phone contact with another group members. Their staff are tracking ‘attendance’ and keeping alert to when people’s online engagement (or lack of) might suggest they are struggling and they will then call to check in. Shallal are brokering connections between participants and some have volunteered to support others.
  • Magic Carpet are posting letters to previous participants in their projects and Shallal have also sought to re-connect with previous participants and make sessions open to them too.

Health & safety and digital safeguarding

This crisis has thrown up new safety and safeguarding issues. Shallal note that they are getting advice on contamination risks associated with sending materials by post.

Digital safeguarding is another new area for some. Like many, Shallal are wondering about the security of video software. (The Cultural, Health and Wellbeing Alliance have some have developed some helpful initial guidance on digital safeguarding for the arts & health sector.)

The wellbeing of staff is equally important. Shallal note the importance for artists/facilitators in maintaining healthy boundaries if they do choose to contact or support participants outside of the scheduled sessions.

Making the most of a difficult situation

This is a very hard time for many arts organisations – however these organisations are taking some positives from it. Creative Alternatives Director, Jessica Bockler, notes in her blog for the Foundation that feedback on their digital programme which they began in 2017 suggests that digital delivery can work better for some people who find it hard to attend a regular session.

Joanna Willis of Shallal says that they are looking at this as a very valuable research and development time that they don’t usually have, particularly around maintaining contact with people who are isolated and can’t always attend due to transport or ill health. Laura Drysdale of the Restoration Trust is hoping to use the lockdown time to develop a digital strategy drawing on this experience and ideas from others. And on a slightly different ‘note’, Magic Carpet have started a Zoom choir – something they hadn’t planned, but which they describe as “socially brilliant, if mixed results creatively!”.

About the contributors

Creative Alternatives in Merseyside is an arts on prescription service with a longstanding commitment to people with mental health problems.

Fallen Angels Dance Theatre is based in Chester and specialises in recovery from addiction with classes in safe spaces as well as public performances.

Magic Carpet Arts is an arts and health charity in Exeter which runs a variety of visual arts, singing and theatre sessions including around mental health.

The Restoration Trust in Norfolk is a heritage organisation providing ‘culture therapy’ in partnerships with NHS Trusts and universities.

Shallal is an inclusive arts charity based in Cornwall. Starting out as a dance company, it is now multi art form and also has the inclusive Shallal Studios.