Annabel Turpin reports on how ARC’s silver programme is responsive to the needs of the target group − and that’s not ballroom dancing and basket-weaving.
ARC has long catered for the over 50s, offering daytime singing, gentle exercise and Tai Chi classes for more than five years, along with a weekly subsidised film matinee. However, with 17% of the population of Stockton already of retirement age, set to increase by 62% by 2029, we have become increasingly aware of our responsibility to meet the needs of this growing generation. Last year we began what researchers would call a ‘comprehensive consultation exercise’, which basically means talking to people. We were already welcoming more than 130 over 50s to ARC every week, so we started by getting to know them better, and then moved outside ARC to meet other groups and individuals in local libraries and community centres. We discovered a huge appetite for interesting, stimulating and lively activities – forget ballroom and basket-weaving, think belly dancing and Bollywood. We learned about people’s routines, travel restrictions, family commitments and loneliness, enabling us to shape our activity around people’s needs and find ways to reduce the barriers to visiting ARC.
Boosted by a grant of around £21,000 from NIACE’s Community Learning Innovation Fund in September 2012, we have set out to increase our ‘silver’ activity over the next 12 months. As part of this, we are investing in local arts practitioners to ensure that they are skilled and confident in sharing their practice with the over 50s, thus broadening the range of activities we can offer on a regular and sustainable basis.
We are also establishing a ‘cultural companions’ volunteering scheme, training up a team of volunteers who can provide companionship and transport for people not able to travel unaccompanied. Alongside this will be a buddy scheme, with existing participants volunteering to meet newcomers and help them through their first experience at ARC. Once in place, these schemes will be free to access and help people over the most common barrier to attendance our research highlighted – lack of confidence.
The funding will also subsidise new activities for the first few weeks, enabling us to build participant numbers to a level that becomes sustainable, with the class fees – around £3 per person – covering the tutor costs.
We will continue to listen to what people want, not least via our regular ‘Silver sofa’ sessions, which offer an open conversation with a special guest such as an artist, practitioner, member of staff or local community representative.
But our silver programme is not just about offering creative learning activities. It is also a vital part of our audience development strategy. We are working to link our silver activity with our live programme, and so far we have had over 50s taking part in aerial workshops with Upswing, hula hoop workshops with Stumble Dance Circus and contemporary dance workshops with SMITH Dance Theatre. Establishing these links is important, as we want to open up the live programme to over 50s, encouraging them to attend performances as well as creative learning activities. This year our programme will include a number of targeted matinee performances, with opportunities to meet artists in advance of the show, either via workshop activity or more informally, getting to know them and building interest in coming to see their work.
Annabel Turpin is Chief Executive of ARC Stockton Arts Centre.