How can an organisation that depends on face-to-face interaction with its audience sustain its work during the Covid-19 lockdown? Pat Moores asked Adel Al-Salloum how the The Spark Arts for Children is planning to face the future.
The Spark Arts for Children is best known for its children’s festival, the largest children’s arts festival in England and Wales. It has been running for 17 years and is driven by the belief that the arts are crucial to a child’s development and well-being. This year’s festival was one of the lucky ones, having taken place in February and just managing to avoid the Covid-19 lockdown.
But the story doesn’t end there. For the past two months all of its performance venues have been closed, so how has an organisation like the Spark, with little experience of remote delivery, managed to pivot online, and what has it learned?
Prior to Covid-19 all the original programmes run by The Spark were delivered face to face in schools, libraries and community centres across the East Midlands and beyond, from its base in Leicester’s cultural quarter. When the world closed down, it was in the process of delivering a 10-month, weekly residency for two artists – one a musician and one a visual, craft-based artist – in local libraries. With over 200 Early Years children plus parents and practitioners involved, The Spark was keen for the work to continue as it serves some of the most disadvantaged areas of the city.
Moving both sessions online has resulted in the fortnightly production of 20-minute videos featuring both artists, so the organisation now has 8 additional sessions to promote.
Winning and losing
The challenges of producing these videos have highlighted what can be gained and what is lost by a move online. Beyond the initial challenges of training both artists to produce high quality videos from their own homes, far more profound impacts have been felt.
Adel Al-Salloum, Director of Spark, explains: “The work of the visual artist has come across really well. She cleverly shows how children can produce the things she makes, at home during lockdown. There is a clear visual aesthetic that lends itself well to the screen.”
However, the musician’s ‘move’ online meant something was lost: “So much of why he is a fantastic artist is his direct interaction with young people” Adel says. “He is able to respond in the moment and adapt his delivery depending on their feedback, and this is lost in a 1-way medium. Also, his work is multi-sensory using instruments and evocative fragrances to enhance creativity. Some of this is lost too”, she adds.
Despite the limitations, the videos of both practioners have increased The Spark’s YouTube channel views by over 300% in the last month and the organisation is now looking at ways they can send out ‘creative packs’ to families who may not have access to the internet. The packs will include idea sheets with a wooden spoon for drumming or a glue stick for craft tasks – everyday low tech ways for all families to remain involved.
This desire to genuinely serve the local community is vital to The Spark and therefore “the move online has to be more than just pushing out content,” says Adel. The company’s commitment during the Covid-19 outbreak is to keep providing their local community with quality, relevant content but crucially, compared with larger, national providers “ we also have to allow our community to be involved with what we are producing and to keep our conversation with local people going, otherwise we lose our reason for being”.
The Spark has reached out to local schools and asked them what they need during this time, and the response has been surprising. Within 24 hours of sending out the email to schools asking for feedback, they had heard back from 8 schools, all struggling with the challenge of dealing with classes of mixed age children of key workers and ‘at risk’ children.
“They wanted creative activities that can last half an hour, all afternoon or all week and that can cover mixed age classes”, Adel explained. So Creative Learning Toolkits have been sent to all schools with examples of activities, ‘bite sized’ versions are being sent out to demonstrate how the activities can be broken down over time. The same toolkit will also be available to parents who are home schooling too.
Creative co-curation is also being addressed by commissioning short stories from writers, with the theme of a ‘stories from home’. Artists, many of whom have seen their income streams completely dry up since the lockdown, have been asked to submit 100-word pitches to secure one of the stories the Spark is commissioning and each will be made into a 3-minute video.
The Spark reached out to the families it works with to ask for volunteers to evaluate the submissions and select the final 8 stories. So, 22 children across a range of ages and abilities joined shortlisting sessions via Zoom, hosted by the Spark team, to select their favourite pitches, and these are now being developed.
“This is probably the piece of work that provides the greatest insight as to how we can work in the future,” says Adel. “As a local arts organisation, interactivity is vital for us. We simply can’t lose that, so we have to find a way of working with technology to continue this work,” she adds.
With lockdown expected to affect The Spark’s work for at least a year, the organisation will be investing more in online interactive content like the 3-minute video commissions and will be getting more children involved in commissioning and evaluating the work via selection panels that will be refreshed every few months.
“We simply can’t lose touch with our audience, we have to stay relevant to them and we have to have a dialogue with them. Only by doing so, will we ensure that the arts continue to play a meaningful role in a child’s development and well-being," Adel concludes.
Adel Al-Salloum is Director of The Spark Arts for Children