Newhampton Arts Centre
Like every theatre across the UK, April 2020 was for us at Newhampton Arts Centre (NAC) a blur of cancellations, refunds, furloughs and emergency grant applications. When it became clear that this would not be beaten in six weeks, and that COVID would affect profoundly all our lives for many months, our thoughts turned to what would come afterwards, and what would change for the communities around us.
Outdoor activity – exercise or essential travel – became a lifeline for us all in the first and subsequent lockdowns. It became clear to us that many things we had assumed could only happen indoors would be much safer – and thus much more likely to happen – if they took place outdoors.
Concerts, theatre shows, workshops… all these things could take place outdoors. This was cemented in our thinking with the announcement of the Roadmap, in which outdoor activity would resume much faster than the same activities indoors.
The Newhampton Arts Centre site
The NAC site is perfectly suited for an outdoor space: as a former Edwardian grammar school we have a central courtyard surrounded on all sides by our buildings. The central space, used without any thought pre-COVID as a car park, could easily house a large marquee tent.
We engaged Barkers, the UK’s leading tent makers, to design a custom-built180-seat covered space: The New Horizons Stage. This could house in a COVID-safe way our live events programme for summer 2021, and provide us and the city with a new performance space – and over the winter we focused on raising £40,000 to fund The New Horizons Stage, a new outdoor performance and community space for Wolverhampton.
Working with local schools
With the space secured, we turned to how we could make use of it to benefit the communities we are part of. Since 2018 we have been working with our 5 nearest primary schools – all within 15 minutes walk of NAC – on Startart, a three-year programme funded by our local Bridge organisation, Artsconnect. The programme was designed to foster closer links between arts organisations and their local schools. In March 2020 we were in the middle of year two of our Startart scheme, and one of our first projects to be cancelled was a series of gallery visits and workshops with Year 4.
We have kept in touch with teachers at these schools, and when we started to talk to them about when we might restart Startart in September 2020 they gave us some very clear input.
Firstly, pupils after six months of lockdown were missing the social aspects of learning: taking turns, listening to adults who were not family members, making appropriate verbal responses and working in groups – these were skills virtually impossible to practice over online learning platforms.
Secondly, there was no immediate prospect of artists coming into school – so how could we support pupils without going into schools or pupils coming to our site during the school day?
Along with the need to engage pupils in the social aspects of learning if we could, holiday hunger was an issue that we were aware of long before COVID. For many pupils in our communities the school meal can be the best meal of the day, and over the summer holidays in particular families can struggle for many different reasons to provide an equivalent hot, nutritious and healthy meal.
There is research to suggest that pupils who suffer holiday hunger are set back academically when they return to school in September. We were aware of the herculean efforts being made to distribute food parcels within the city all through last year, and the fact that these parcels would mainly consist of a small number of regular foodstuffs, mainly dried, tinned and packet food. It was clear holiday hunger would be even worse in summer 2021 than in a normal year, after a year in which progress at school had been severely disrupted.
Four week summer programme
Paul Hamlyn Foundation approached us in the spring to see if they could help NAC and its audiences with emergency funding to help support our COVID recovery plans. We very quickly realised that bringing all these factors together over the summer in a four-week programme for primary age children and families would be one of the most useful things we could do to maintain our links with primary schools and contribute to pupils’ post-COVD recovery. In designing the programme we had five elements we were keen to bring together:
High quality arts experience
At the heart of our summer programme is a daily drop-in creative activity run by a professional artist with substantial arts education experience. We try and always stick to very simple messaging: it’s fun, you can arrive when you like between 11am and 3pm Mon-Fri, and stay as long as you like.
Working with schools to identify needs
Secondly, we are working with the schools on this programme. We have not asked the teachers involved in Startart to work with us directly due to their workloads, but instead to work with the artist team on online planning sessions to together plan the creative activities the artist will be delivering over the summer. This way we can ensure that the activities link to the needs identified by teachers, and maximise the opportunity to address these in a fun and creative way during the summer.
Appointing a catering partner
Thirdly, we are integrating a freshly-cooked hot meal with each day’s activities. We are in the process of appointing a catering partner who will have the task of devising a daily lunch suitable for a wide range of ages, cultural backgrounds and diets. Again, the food part of the day is drop-in and free.
Fourthly, we engage in selective marketing: leaflet drops in local streets, posters in local shops and information in local newsletters and Facebook pages. We avoid big city-wide publicity and social media. We might reach slightly fewer audiences in total, but get a much higher percentage of our target participant group coming.
Lastly, being outdoors means we can offer strong reassurance about the safety of the activity as a whole.
All of this we are approaching in a way that puts the artistic experience first, with an emphasis on fun. It is not a ‘catch-up’ class, but an opportunity to take part in music, dance or visual art activities. We are not running a food bank or a meal delivery service – but if you’re with us for the day then there’s a good lunch available if you’d like it. Finally, in our outdoor covered space, so it’s as COVID-safe as we can make it and you won’t get wet if it rains!
Trevelyan Wright is the CEO of Newhampton Arts Centre, an arts and community centre in Whitmore Reans, Wolverhampton.
Image: New Horizons by Alex Chilton