I had the recent good fortune to be able to attend the recent Family Arts Conference at St. George’s and Watershed, Bristol on 15 March 2017 (#FAcon17) as part of Theatre Bristol’s new TB Agent initiative. The sunny day provided a warm welcome for an impressive turnout of sector professionals from across the UK. Adeptly produced by Family Arts Campaign, the day-long programme identified current trends and challenges within the family arts sector, as well as offering models for good practice. Here I will summarise the main highlights of the day and some of my reflections on it, but is by no means a complete report. Please email me if you’d like any further information about any of it—I’ll be happy to riffle through my notes and programme details and find something of use for you!
There is now undeniable evidence from the UK Household Longitudinal Study that arts and culture has a positive impact on health and well-being. The research also reveals that when young children have exposure and engagement with arts and cultural there is increased likelihood of continued engagement as they grow older. As I understood, both of these findings are true even when adjusted for socio-economic and other factors, so begin to usefully quantify the value of arts and cultural provision for families with young children and indeed, for people of all ages. We knew this in our bones, of course, but it was illuminating to hear details of the data to prove it, engagingly presented by Jonathan Blackburn, Senior Policy & Research Officer at Arts Council England.
However, there are still significant challenges. Although those aged over 60 may not feature strongly in our current associations with ‘family audiences’ or ‘family arts’, we may do well to reconsider. Across the UK and across the world, we are facing an increasingly aged population as a result of better health care and working conditions, among other factors. Kate Organ, arts advisor to the Baring Foundation, reported that in the UK, 1 in 7 people are over 60, a figure which will rise to 1 in 3 over the next 25 years. Citing Japan as a site of excellent practice in inclusive activity for those over 60, Kate emphasized the urgency to envision a public that is truly inter-generational, and to ensure that our creative and cultural offerings are relevant and accessible for an ageing population (and their carers!).
Estella Ticknell, Bristol City Council cabinet member for equalities, culture and events, concurred with these sentiments but added that access is not only a challenge for elders. In Bristol, as elsewhere, there is increasing polarization between rich and poor. That almost half of children in Bristol are living in poverty reveals an enduring socio-economic ‘postcode inequality’. A significant portion of what is on offer within the arts is not available or relevant for many; barriers of cost, ‘hard to get to’ locations and the ‘feeling it’s not for you’ are still strong reasons for non-attendance or non-participation in cultural offerings. She also reported that Bristol is seventh worst city for racial equality in the UK. But practice examples represented throughout the conference show increasing creativity and innovation in understanding and overcoming these and other barriers. Five main themes emerged from the day as a sort of tool-kit for best practice.
A high quality welcome and ‘everyday access’
This refers to approaches that ensure that values of welcome and access are integrated at all levels; people, place and programming. That staff, volunteers, artists and management are all well-briefed to extend a high-quality welcome, the rationale for which is well considered and understood. Drop-in possibilities, seating, refreshments, clean, easy to access toilets were also cited. Heidi Wiley, Secretary General of the European Theatre Convention (and presenting in absentia via pre-recorded video from Germany due to a travel disruption) reported that in the theatre project, The Art of Ageing, this sense of welcome involved consciously embedding a “positive attitude” that pervaded the project and better enabled them to confront the taboo nature of ageing on stage publicly and openly.
Places and spaces are considered and made as welcoming and accessible as possible as a norm, rather than a temporary adjustment. Ideally this occurs at design stage, but can sometimes be achieved retro-actively. Chris Proctor, programme manager at Birmingham Town Hall Symphony Hall (THSH), has been working collaboratively with support organisations and families to better meet the needs of those with learning difficulties or physical disability. Deepa Shastri, Talks Programme manager at Stagetext, made the point that there is often collateral benefit with any initiative to increase access—a ramp made for wheelchair access may also make venues less daunting for someone with a slower pace due to injury or close captioning may allow someone with autism to read along on a personal electronic device, or allow non-native speakers to follow more easily. For some, a quality welcome extended to their online presence. Art of Ageing created a complementary online interface which allowed the project a way to engage beyond the live events. THSH provides a full virtual ‘tour’ of the venue online so visitors with autism can familiarize themselves with the space.
Indeed there was general consensus that the pervasive and urgent necessity for provision of quality arts and culture for family audiences needs to confront any residual culture that addresses ‘special needs’ as a policy-led, afterthought or by-request measure. Instead, most speakers were advocating for ‘everyday access’; a considered approach that is integrated at all levels of programming, behaviour and design, thus enabling as standard, an accessible welcome that meets a spectrum of needs for all.
The statistical information shows that children and older people are key audiences for most cultural offerings. Also emerging from anecdotal evidence across several presenters, and (if I’ve understood it correctly) supported by data presented by Leo Sharrock of The Audience Agency, it appears that cross-form, inter-generational provision appear to have the highest uptake across socio-economic audience types, when compared with other arts and cultural offerings. Speakers at the festival confirmed that offerings for these audiences are best when the subject matter or approach has real significance to them and is in a form that fits. The Architecture Centre, for example, has had good success with drop-in events with open-ended themes. Once project had the theme of ‘Place’, a concept through which common ground could be sought across the diverse experience of participants. The drop-in nature allows participants to engage at whatever distance or level they choose. Amy Harrison, their Learning and Participation Manager also insists that the use of high-quality materials is part of their approach and success, memorably saying “We use … the best art materials…provide the best cake...!”.
Others sought to ensure that the work is ‘on trend’ within popular culture, whilst taking a form appropriate to a particular audience. Optimising a resurgence of interest in 80’s culture, a family disco alongside a showing of The Wiz (Bristol Family Arts Festival 2016- and others?) was met with great success and attracted new audiences.
Work together: Seek genuine partnership and collaboration
Most speakers valued matters of access and diversity as integral to building family audiences. For many, building mutually beneficial relationships over time, with participants and support organisations, was key to their success. The advice that emerged included, being authentic in your motives, taking care to embed empathy, respect and reciprocity within relationships and valuing each person’s expertise.
Emma Spencer, Family Learning Coordinator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park described going on repeated door knocking excursions in the neighbourhood and offering family sessions. Her efforts slowly resulted in building relationships with those living adjacent to the sculpture park but who had never previously visited. The relationships that unfolded were mutually beneficial; expert knowledge was shared in both directions and shaped the programme, with direct benefit to both the families and the Sculpture Park. Individual relationships were also reported as significant in the success of other outreach initiatives, including Mousetrap Theatre Projects who create opportunities for young people with limited resources to attend London Theatre. One case was described, in which a young woman who had benefited from the programme as a child returned later as a media student to create a promotional video for the organisation.
The values of partnership and collaboration also seemed to appear within mentions of marketing, where it appears that conventional practices and channels are not entirely successful in reaching family audiences, particularly those from families who have little existing arts engagement. Instead, working with relevant organisational partners, community radio, and door knocking were all mentioned as first steps along a longer process of building genuine relationships with participants.
There was general consensus that Relaxed Performances are a huge success. In these performances, some performance choices, lighting, sound or text may be adapted and there is an acceptance that there may be noise and movement within the audience. Performances of this nature emerged to better accommodate those with special learning, physical, sensory or communication needs or those with autism or Asperger’s. They are also attractive to parents or carers with babes in arms or anyone who prefers the particular qualities present within these circumstances.
But the theme of relaxing extended yet further. It also appeared to be part of what was needed in adjusting expectation relating to quantifiable results and giving evidence of big impact. Amy Harrison suggested that we needed to ‘be open to a slower pace and lower numbers’ when treading new territory regarding family arts formats and seeking to build trust among new audiences. However, there was a strong sense that smaller numbers yielded deeper and ultimately more impactful relationships as evidenced in the earlier case from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, among others. One speaker said ‘meet people first as an individual, not as an organisation.’
Many advised a relaxed approach to risk and achievement—that progress in seeking new audiences and relationships and enabling new access involved taking risks and indeed, making mistakes. Others reminded us that care should be extended in managing expectation from all sides. Both positions were mitigated by the final, over-arching theme that emerged from the day; approaching family and ‘all-age-friendly’ arts activity as ‘action research’.
Referred to variably throughout the day as ‘action learning’, a process of ‘consult and test’, ‘test day’ and ‘inter-disciplinary research’ among others, it became clear that many presenting at the conference viewed building new relationships, audiences, access and family-and-all-age-friendly programming within the context of ‘action research’. For example, Art of Ageing characterised their project as ‘creative research led by questions… a discourse between science, artists and audiences’, other speakers referred often to the need to simply listen well and take action that responded to need, or to meaningfully apply growing knowledge and understanding to each new iteration of an activity or programme. This approach offers a strong context within which any practitioner or organisation can begin, or continue to engage effectively with the other themes of ‘best practice’ discussed throughout this report. (Organisations and venues should also consider signing up to the Family Arts Campaign’s Standards, an excellent set of 12 practical guidelines to underpin good practice.)
While the day’s programme was comprehensive and very well-organised, I noticed the speakers were predominantly in managerial or programme coordination roles. While I am aware than many of the people in these roles are also artist-practitioners, they spoke mostly from their management role. Particularly in light of valuing expertise, I think the discussion may have benefitted from hearing more from the artists’ perspectives; the considerations and perspectives they employ when creating work for ‘family audiences’.
Finally, throughout the day, I was increasingly curious about associations with the word ‘family’. How, for example, do some of those who are considered ‘hard to reach’ audiences identify with the word “family”? Might the associations that one attaches to this word even behave as barriers to participation? How useful is the word ‘family’ in inviting engagement and participation if one has negative or emotive associations with the word? I was glad to hear an awareness of these complexities from several speakers and also summarized by Darren Henley in his closing remarks. He remarked that we need to be certain that we are communicating about the word in its widest sense—and reminded us that the word has only been used in recent times in relation to the nuclear family. Historically, it was associated with anyone participating in a household and sometimes included the home-place or land. We know that families come in many shapes and sizes, or indeed that some are separated from family by economic need, tragedy or war. Care should be made surrounding the language and imagery within marketing and delivery for family arts to ensure that our ‘widest sense’ of ‘family’ is represented and warmly welcomed.
Finally, I noticed that the programme was lacking ample, proportional attention to the particular opportunities to be had in outdoor and public realm programming, especially considering that cross-form and inter-generational arts are highly suited for these contexts. Only one or two representatives were associated with this kind of work and their discussion did not address the particular nature of outdoor arts in relation to family arts. I would have liked to have heard more, for example, from Rowan Hoban, of Wild Rumpus, who creates large scale outdoor family arts events, often in natural environments. However, her position as a moderator of a talk rather than presenter inhibited her capacity to share her own experience. Nevertheless, as an artist, I found the day to be immensely nourishing; it galvanized my commitment to creating Playscapes--high quality, cross-form arts activity for all ages that engenders connection and creativity by embedding genuine co-creation and open-ended play. (http://www.amyroseprojects.com/project/playscapes-by-bocadalupa/)
Family Arts Campaign:Conference Information
Family Arts Awards event
Family Arts Standards
Two Arts Council England Reports that might be of interest
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