One of the many joys of working at the Southbank Centre is seeing people of all ages and backgrounds discovering exciting, entertaining and challenging art of all varieties, as well as discovering and exploring their own creative voice through the many different spaces and artistic experiences available here.
Of course we know that the act of getting out of the house, never mind having the confidence or wherewithal to come into an artistic or cultural space and feel part of it, is not a simple thing for many.
As one of the UK’s largest public cultural organisations we are keenly aware of our responsibility to be connected to what is happening in our communities, wider society and the very real challenges that some face as a barrier to accessing cultural experiences.
We know that dementia is one of the main causes of disability later in life (ahead of cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke), with numbers of diagnoses rising each year at an alarming rate*. To ensure that those facing the challenges that come with a diagnosis are able, like everyone else, to be represented and experience the delights of seeing, hearing and making art at Southbank Centre we have trained all front of house staff as dementia friends, audited our buildings and site and have programmed relaxed performances, tours, exhibitions, etc. Building on this solid foundation, we wanted to create something specific that would be part of our artistic programme.
Southbank Centre’s 2018 (B)old Festival, which was funded and supported by The Baring Foundation, creatively questioned what it meant to be aging and showcased artists over 65. As a nod to the success and legacy of the festival it only seemed right that this new programme of arts for those with dementia, should be called The (B)olds!
So starting in the early spring of 2019, every Monday morning on the fifth floor of Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in the quiet of the National Poetry Library, a group of ordinary yet extraordinary people from across London came together to drink tea, share stories, and under the gentle guidance of poet Antosh Wojcik, explore the beauty and power of words – enabling them to uncover a new creative voice inside them. (B)old Words was happening!
And then on a Wednesday morning in the Royal Festival Hall down in the performance studio the Blue Room, yet more individuals gathered together with dance artist Stella Howard and Social Tea Dance DJs Mr Wonderful and Super Sarah (aka Malcolm Fernandez and Sarah Davies) to listen to good music and begin feeling, moving and re-learning or learning steps and moves of some of the classic tea dances in (B)old Moves .
Over the course of 10 weeks both these projects saw many really exciting, beautiful, fun and poignant moments – art was made, friendships formed and spirits lifted.
While these sessions became almost a sacred, protected time for the people, we were keen that we should find a way to connect to wider programmes; not keeping it sidelined or foster an idea that if you have dementia, there are only certain experiences now available to you. So (B)old Moves was programmed alongside our Social Tea Dances ; Our wonderful free tea dances happen once every month and see around 300-400 people attending each time to dance the afternoon away on the wonderful Clore Ballroom. Supported by the dance artist and with their DJ at the helm of the afternoon’s dance, the (B)old Moves participants attended the tea dances as a group.
They took the energy, feelings, moves and steps of the morning’s workshops onto the dancefloor of the afternoon’s tea dance in a beautiful coming together of fun, frivolity and fancy (if not quite accurate!) footwork!
Similarly connecting out, the participants of (B)old Words selected some of the pieces they had written to be collated in to a short poetry collection. As well as a great physical keepsake for participants, this beautiful book was produced and showcased at the Creative Health Conference here at Southbank Centre in June and over this summer, Antosh (the leading poet) is busy working with participants to record them reading their work. These recordings will be used to create an audio piece to be installed as part of London Literature Festival for the thousands of visitors to experience.
This is not about art being bestowed upon those with a need – it is an exchange; whilst great care goes into creating the (B)old programme, the artwork that is created and the dynamics and atmosphere of any event are richer for the energy and diversity of participant voice.
So often when this disease becomes part of someone’s life, fears, frustrations and a sense of isolation can become painfully real. The two groups of people affected by dementia or memory loss, either directly or through a caring or supporting role, come together for those two hours each Monday and Wednesday – forming friendships, reading, listening, moving and creating. They inspired one another and found ways to share the individual and collective human experience in all its complexity, beauty, challenges and triumphs, both big and small.
(B)old Moves and (B)old Words will continue this year and now with the generous support of the Baring Foundation, we are so pleased and excited to be able to be growing the (B)old programme to include (B)old Vision. This new strand of visual arts will take place alongside the exhibition programme in the Hayward Gallery and this Autumn will draw its inspiration from the upcoming show Bridget Riley. This means more art will be available to more people, and more stories will be written and told by those (B)oldly venturing to affirm their identity as a creative being still discovering, still learning, still making!
Lucy Wells is the Creative Learning Manager – Communities at the Southbank Centre