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ARC Stockton: our strength lies in our relationships, not our physical assets

Annabel Turpin, Chief Executive & Artistic Director of ARC Stockton talks with the North East Culture Partnership about the impact of COVID-19 on their organisation and how they have adapted to the new landscape.

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ARC is a charity that uses arts and culture to support our local community. We work locally in Stockton and the Tees Valley, across the North East, and nationally, through our artistic programmes, support for artists, and leadership of networks and partnerships.

Our year-round programme of events and activities includes live performances, film screenings, workshops and classes. We are particularly committed to enabling people who might feel that the arts isn’t for them to take part.

Our work brings people together so we can all better understand and enjoy the world and experience new ideas.

We invite lots of different artists to spend time creating new work at ARC, working with local people, to make sure that what we present is relevant to Stockton.

Our strength is in our relationships

We operate from a fabulous five-story building in the centre of Stockton. We welcome more than 110,000 people per year. When we had to close the building in mid-March it removed the main way we interact with customers and communities, displacing events, activities, artists and regular community groups.

However, we believe the strength of ARC lies in its relationships, not in its physical assets. We recognised the most important thing was to maintain these relationships, to find new ways of connecting with customers and our many different communities.

We also tried to focus on how we could best use our resources to reach the people who needed us the most.

Overcoming the challenge

The biggest question was how we could continue to deliver quality, meaningful activity, and ensure that people who might have the least opportunity to engage with arts and culture didn’t miss out.

Whilst many organisations have switched their distribution to digital channels, we wanted to make sure that we could provide creative and cultural experiences for people who might not choose to engage digitally. Withstanding the pressure to do this was quite hard, as we were conscious our work wasn’t as visible to the wider public.

Like many businesses, we had to adapt very quickly to working remotely, with a vastly reduced staff team – 80% of our staff are furloughed. We had to prioritise our resources, and pace ourselves, taking the time to develop a programme that still achieved our key aim of being relevant to our communities.

Reaching out and listening

We have aimed to maintain direct engagement of some type with all our customers, and to develop new approaches for those groups and individuals within the community who need ARC most for well-being, social care, connectedness, mental and physical health and many other reasons.

We have literally made thousands of phone calls to ticket holders, participants, community users, artists, promoters and practitioners. Our principle was to apologise, explain, reschedule but most of all, to listen. Many people have wanted to talk about their situation, to share the challenges they are experiencing but also to ask how we are, a wonderful reminder that these relationships are reciprocal.

We were particularly conscious of our regular participants as we know ARC is a lifeline for many of them. It is the place they come to feel at home, to spend time with other people, to be creative and to be respected. Most importantly, it is a place they come to contribute, to have their creativity valued and validated.

We ARConnected – image created during lockdown by Full Circle Theatre Company in response to the theme ‘This is Me’

We ARConnected

‘We ARConnected’ has been our way of replicating this: a programme that invites people to contribute their creative endeavours around a new theme each fortnight. We have been supporting people to engage by phone, post and email and received the most amazing artworks in response. All the creations that people contribute will eventually be exhibited at ARC, to celebrate how our communities came together and connected creatively throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

We’ve also adapted Staying Out, our programme for socially isolated older people, and are now delivering it remotely. The programme is funded by Stockton Borough Council’s Public Health team, and its continuation during lockdown has seen us take on responsibility for weekly welfare checks alongside supporting creativity. Creating Together, our regular programme for asylum seekers, refugees and people who have experienced homelessness, resumes this month, with bi-monthly online sessions run by Displace Yourself Theatre.

We are also working to find new ways of sharing the work of our artists. This film by Daniel Bye and Boff Whalley features a new song sung by local residents as they walked to Roseberry Topping (made pre-lockdown). Siege by Vici Wreford-Sinnott, co-commissioned with HOME in Manchester, with be broadcast online soon. We’re also excited to invite audiences to help create a show, as part of FUEL’s international tour of Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, showing for ARC’s audiences on Thursday 18 June.

The strength of relationships

We have been overwhelmed by the artwork we have received for We ARConnected, as well as the positive feedback from people taking part in all our programmes:

“ARCulele has had such an important role in my husband’s life, as it’s often been the one thing he makes it through the week for. It’s more than a group – it’s become a family, where my husband sees the best in himself that he struggles to do elsewhere. I honestly don’t know where we’d be right now if it hadn’t been able to continue.” ARCulele at Home ‘online’ participant

“I am not particularly creative but lockdown seems to have inhibition-eliminating powers ~ suddenly things I was afraid to try have become an exciting challenge and dare I say …. “fun!” We ARConnected participant

Audiences have been incredibly understanding, and we have managed to exchange nearly 80% of tickets for cancelled events for future events.

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To find out more about ARC Stockton visit their website: www.arconline.co.uk

Dan & Boff’s film is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4jB6-0wsks&feature=youtu.be

Find out about Siege by Vici Wreford-Sinnott: http://arconline.co.uk/whats-on/theatre-dance-special-events/siege

Love Letters Straight From Your Heart: http://arconline.co.uk/whats-on/theatre-dance/love-letters-straight-from-your-heart

Follow Annabel Turpin on Twitter here: @annabelturpin

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