How many older people do you expect to see in a contemporary art gallery? Clare Hankinson tells how Fabrica’s older audience programmes welcomed over 1,000 people last year.
Daniel Yáñez González
Fabrica is a contemporary art gallery based in a former Regency church in Brighton. In the spring of next year we will exhibit a light-based piece of work by Ron Hasledon inspired by workshops he has done locally and nationally with older ‘non-drawers’. It is a commission under the Baring Foundation’s ‘Late Style’ programme, which showcases the work of older artists. The exhibition will mark the re-opening of the gallery after building works and act as a timely platform to recognise and celebrate the contributions and successes that our older audience has made in the past few years.
Our Growing an older audience programme began life as a three-year project and now five years on has become an integrated part of our core programme. It delivers around 50 activities each year, including regular gallery-based events, outings to other cultural venues in Brighton and Hove, and outreach projects that work with some of the more vulnerable and socially isolated residents in the city. In 2014 we worked with over 1,000 people.
Our ambassadors from our volunteer programme visit and build bridges with community groups, organisations and care homes
For many older people going to an art gallery – especially a contemporary art gallery – can be a daunting prospect. Seemingly minor things can act as major barriers to engagement. We are particularly keen to reach individuals who may be experiencing social isolation. Practical issues, such as timings, costs and accessibility, are common barriers for people with financial constraints and physical impairments. Making sure people know what to expect alleviates unspoken concerns. Is it on a bus route? Will there be many stairs? Are there ramps and disabled toilets? For some older people paying even just a few pounds towards an event is too much so we try to make all our activities free for older people, with the opportunity to make a donation if they feel able. And then complimentary refreshments tend to relax people, cement a group and make people feel valued. Older people feel safer getting about in town during the daytime but we avoid lunchtimes as routines can be quite fixed, especially for those living in supported housing or a care home.
Developing the way we communicate has been key. Our ambassadors from our volunteer programme visit and build bridges with community groups, organisations and care homes, giving us a friendly face outside the gallery. They have been instrumental in encouraging new visitors to take those first tentative steps across the threshold, particularly through bespoke ‘very private views’ for groups at exhibitions. We have removed ‘artspeak’ from our correspondence and send it by post (though the over sixties are the internet’s fastest growing audience). Our monthly e-newsletter giving details of daytime arts events for adults includes affordable exhibitions, events and opportunities across the city, reaching over 750 subscribers. We feel that it’s important to introduce other cultural venues and opportunities in the area and do this as part of an initiative called Going To See Culture Together which encourages people to take ownership of their city, make new social connections and grow their own interest and confidence.
We have embedded this awareness within our staff team and embraced ways of working and open attitudes that will leave a legacy within the organisation. Doing this successfully takes time, patience and commitment, but it is worth it when we see the positive effects that art has on older people’s lives. This is what one of our participants said: “I think the gallery has become a welcoming space and has opened up great opportunities to keep in touch with the current art world. It has sent out an inspiring lifeline to those of us in the Brighton community who probably would not have normally ventured into galleries alone. For that I am most grateful. This project has become very important to my quality of life as a retired person who lives alone. It has raised my spirits overall and made me feel more a part of a community.’’