Covid-19 means cultural institutions must take on their new civic role with as much imagination as possible. Sally Shaw and Firstsite had already embraced the challenge.
There are 40,000 children and young people living in Colchester. Pre-Covid, nearly 25% of them were living below the poverty line and that figure is predicted to have grown higher still during the first lockdown. There are also many families and children living ‘just above’ this poverty line – which moves up and down with the politics of the day – and are also struggling but unable to access associated benefits. Many families experience ‘in-work poverty’ where they are drawing an income, but this is still insufficient to cover the essentials.
Firstsite Holiday Fun is a free day out at the gallery designed directly in response to the need to provide relief to these families. It is created and designed around the five ways to wellbeing: connect, give, learn, be active, and take notice. The project enables children as well as their extended families to better navigate the difficult period of the school holidays. For many children this is a time of hunger and deprivation that is all but invisible to the rest of society.
From humble beginnings
Firstsite, as many in the sector will know, had a rocky start during its first few years after opening the new building. It lost its sense of purpose and became seriously decoupled from its immediate local audiences. Since starting there in 2016, I have made it my mission, and that of the team, to meet as many people in our community as possible to find out what challenges they are facing and how we can bring all our resources – creative, financial and social – to co-author new solutions, often with surprising and unique results. We take inspiration from our unconventionally shaped building to create unconventional solutions with those who live and work on our doorstep.
One of the first people I met on this journey was Rachel Walton who is Chief Executive of an incredible charity called African Families in the UK. We received around £2000 from the touring budget for Lubaina Himid’s Turner Prize-winning exhibition in 2017 and Rachel and I decided to put the money towards solving holiday hunger for families in proximity to Firstsite. Rachel knew some of these families through her various networks in the community. We decided to spend the touring budget to start what we called a ‘school canteen’. Sadly, it has been jam packed since day one.
Since opening the canteen in 2017, we have provided 6,500 meals to over 300 families. 1,500 of these meals have been since July this year. We know from our data that some families’ need for support is so great they will visit as many as 25 times during a summer holiday period. We also recorded in summer 2019 that 36% of families attending the canteen were from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. This is three times higher than our regular visitor attendance, which is itself already 2% higher than would be expected based on Colchester’s demographic.
Pride and pleasure
Firstsite’s Holiday Fun programme has transformed the whole organisation. The sound in the building when we run the programme is extraordinary: children are having a great time exploring the building and our exhibitions everywhere you look. Our team are incredibly committed and energised by the programme. Their sense of pride in what we do has rocketed.
Starting in the morning, children and their families can take part in sporting activities outside the gallery led by Colchester United Football Club – Firstsite’s answer to Fluxus sport. This is followed by a free, hot, nutritious meal cooked on-site. Then children send the rest of the day taking part in art and creative activities. Before the pandemic, this meant all sorts of easy fun making at our activity tables, led by a member of the creative team. Now we provide bespoke takeaway activity packs for children and their families or carers to do at the table after they eat or take home and do later.
For the children and families who take part, the difference is obvious. They leave the building having had a great day out. They are visibly happier, less stressed, more ‘together’, and better able to deal with whatever is coming next. This may only be a small and temporary fix, but it is a critical change in direction for many. Some of the families we met in 2017 still visit regularly and have been directly involved in curating exhibitions through our Arts Council Collection National Partners programme.
We have attracted new supporters and funders, including the NHS, which sees Firstsite as a partner on the ground empowering them to take their first steps towards preventative care. There is also a palpable shift in the general community regarding the perception of the organisation and the building. It is no longer a white elephant but a beacon of hope and inspiration which has real creativity at its core.
Since the pandemic we have increased our capacity to connect with communities, many of whom aren’t able to come out of their homes or for a variety of complex reasons, to overcome the stigma of accepting help in this way. We now deliver a service whereby families can collect takeaway boxed lunches with activity packs. The people taking up this offer are completely new to the programme, so it’s clear we’re broadening our impact. We plan to run the programme every school holiday and weekend from now on, recognising that many families experience a circle of stress between Friday evening and Monday morning alone.
Lastly, we are looking into how this model can be adopted by other organisations across the East Anglia region and the wider UK, particularly where Covid-19 has had the deepest impact. The coronavirus pandemic has driven many people to recalibrate, and culture and creativity is something we must take more seriously now. As the nation has turned inwards to find means of expression and outlets for creative communication, art galleries and other cultural institutions have a major new role in creating a sense of community – one that is shared, co-authored, and as imaginative as possible in finding ways forward.