Caring, creativity and connectedness in Tayside during Covid-19

Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust  (THAT) is a small charity with two key staff, that produces and promotes Art in Health activity across Dundee, Angus and Perth & Kinross. 75% of our time is focused on participatory creative engagement programmes for people recovering from and living with long term health conditions, stroke, Parkinson’s,  MS,  chronic pain, dementia and many others. We employ freelance artists across a wide range of disciplines from visual arts to creative writing, dance, singing and music making, photography and animation. We do not run a venue of any sort and work from a small office courtesy of NHS Tayside.  All our activity is delivered in partnership and as close to our participants as possible, either in inpatients, in community venues or in cultural centres.

Like most people we were not especially well organised for a national pandemic and lockdown. On Friday March 20th we bought two new laptops, downloaded some current files and tried to get ready for working from home on the Monday.

On March 23rd 2020 at the point of lockdown we should have had three artists working in inpatient Stroke Rehabilitation Units, and one in Palliative Day Care; singing coaches working with a community based stroke group and a community based MS Group; and our partnership programme with Dundee Contemporary Arts running Japanese Calligraphy and digital photography programmes. We also had a creative writing programme and a Samba Music programme due to commence within weeks.

All of these programmes had to be cancelled or postponed and agreement reached with our artists about outstanding contracts and payments. We then had to figure out what to do next! We had never run any online programmes before, always basing our work on person centred, face to face activity, mostly within peer support group scenarios.

Within a fortnight we had transferred two lead artists contracts to new Creative at a Distance online programmes, one using creative writing and the other photography.  For these first programmes we simply used an email exchange system. Eight weekly challenges were issued by the artists and participants’ submissions were emailed in return.  Artists provided supportive feedback and creative guidance. We shared work from both groups through a new Mailchimp email newsletter and also as weekly Facebook posts. This worked well and after their eight week run we secured additional funding to produce a limited edition Zine and we will now be holding an exhibition of the work and the Zine at Dundee Contemporary Arts in December.

These two programmes were a good start, but we know that a lot of our participants are not able to engage online in a significant way due to their personal circumstances or impairment level.  So, by June we commissioned another two programmes as doorstep deliveries with follow up telephone/video calls and additional doorstep visit support.  One a printmaking and the other a collage programme, both included a prepaid postal exchange element between participants, so everyone sent and received art works and messages to each other in the group.  Each programme also had a 4-page newsletter printed at the end of the programme featuring examples of everyone’s work, with participants receiving multiple copies to share with friends and family.

THAT had previously established a long term conditions choir called Vocal Chord, with Horsecross Arts who run Perth Concert Hall.  We transferred one of our singing coach contracts to run some experimental online Sing N Chat sessions on Zoom, working with members of Vocal Chord to see what we could achieve online.  We had to learn how to use the platform ourselves and be able to help our participants to learn to use it as well.  A short and successful six session experiment has now led to a much larger group of participants doing a fully structured programme, once again in partnership with Horsecross Arts.

It is clear that this situation is not going to be the short term affair that we probably all thought and that the adaptations and new models of working that we are developing are going to become a permanent part of our delivery portfolio.

We are ready to launch a new music composition programme with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in November 2020, using Zoom and sound cloud with both physical instruments and download music apps. We are also working in partnership with The McManus Galleries to deliver a new online photography programme in the new year.  It will be directly associated with a major exhibition in the gallery, ‘A Love Letter To Dundee’ with photographs by Joseph McKenzie.

We are also planning to get back to face to face working and are using our close partnership with Dundee Contemporary Arts to begin small group working sessions under strict covid protection conditions. These will also start in November and will be evaluated with the intention of running a more extensive programme in the new year  (2021). We continue to evaluate everything we do but it is still too early for us to decide what the balance of our programming is likely to be in the future.  We have learnt that we are flexible and can provide local leadership in this area and still be providing the service that we are valued for.

This post is a transcript of Chris Kelly’s presentation at the Arts Culture Health and Wellbeing Scotland online event Caring, Creativity and Connectedness during Covid-19 held on 17th November 2020. Chris is Projects Coordinator at Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust.

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