SUNDERLAND’S cultural venues may be closed, but Wearsiders can still access an exciting range of great performances, exhibitions and arts activity.
It is now eight weeks since National Glass Centre, NGCA, Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, Arts Centre Washington and The Fire Station closed their doors in response to the spread of COVID-19.
Since then Sunderland Culture, University of Sunderland and Sunderland City Council have been working to deliver arts, culture and heritage online and in innovative new ways.
“As soon as the venues closed we started working on a plan for our combined digital channels to take interesting and inspiring content – old and new – into Sunderland homes,” said Keith Merrin, Chief Executive of Sunderland Culture.
“Our programmes include activities for families, valuable resources for home schooling, and projects to help socially-isolated older people. We’ve also offered direct support to local artists and creatives while our websites offer a showcase for the city’s venues and artists to a global audience.”
A programme of family activities planned for the Easter holidays had to be cancelled, but a new digital creative challenge for children and families was developed and launched at great speed.
“The Creative Challenges went out on Sunderland Museum, National Glass Centre and Sunderland Culture channels and had more than 2,000 engagements. The challenges are still available on the Sunderland Culture website,” explained Keith.
The museum also acted swiftly to transform a University of Sunderland Fine Art and Design students’ takeover event, which had been due at the end of April. This event became an online takeover of the museum’s Received Wisdom exhibition in partnership with the prestigious Arts Council Collection. The online takeover featured work by nine university students and two staff, and attracted almost 4,000 direct engagements through Instagram and Twitter.
Arts Centre Washington’s performance programme has also been suspended until further notice, but the venue responded by arranging the broadcast premiere of The Secret Earl of Biddick, a play developed by the venue’s Youth Theatre for the visit of The Tall Ships in 2018.
“While it has been important to us to engage with audiences through our websites and social media, another priority was to continue to support artists. It has been an extremely challenging time for freelance artists and independent companies, and we’ve worked hard to support the artistic community in Sunderland,” said Keith.
A survey distributed in the early weeks of the lockdown asked local artists what help they needed.
“The responses enabled our creative industries support programme to be rapidly refocused and we launched a programme of online tutorials and workshops to offer as much help and support as we can. A new area of Sunderland Culture’s website will be dedicated to the support available,” explained Keith.
In one tutorial, 18 Sunderland writers received guidance on writing monologues. The subsequent works will provide paid-for employment for local actors who will record the monologues, which will be shared later this year.
Just before it closed National Glass Centre was preparing No Strings, an exhibition featuring artwork from seven international artists working with glass beads in unconventional ways. However, audiences can still see No Strings after a new film and online video tour of the exhibition was put on Sunderland Culture’s website.
“Our curator Julia Stephenson recorded the tour allowing people to enjoy this extraordinary exhibition from the comfort of their own home,” said Keith.
“The online videos we’re producing are part of our proactive plan to take arts and culture into our communities in new ways. Of course, not everyone has access to the internet, so some of our work is being done over the telephone, ” he added.
This plan includes specific work with identified communities, and includes a project with Sunderland Culture’s Creative Age groups affected by dementia, but which will incorporate social-distancing measures. Another project will work with older people through the Age of Creativity Festival, a national, month-long celebration of older people as creative audiences, participants, volunteers and artists. The festival has moved online.
And after the success of the Easter challenge, Sunderland Culture’s learning and participation team is developing a new six-week Discover Arts Award for Children and their families.
“I’m grateful to our teams for the hard work they’ve put in to make so much artistic content available online and through social media so quickly. But there is more to come with some really exciting and innovative developments arriving soon,” said Keith.
“For instance, we’re also working on a new offer to schools, families and young people which will launch soon on our website,” he added.
Sunderland City Council’s Cabinet Member for Communities and Culture, Councillor John Kelly, added: “We’ve all been in the lockdown, and restrictions remain on what we can go out and see, yet there’s plenty of Sunderland Culture online so do please join in, support the work and get involved.
“Thanks to the thousands who have taken part by either watching or engaging through Instagram and Twitter. There’s been a lot of excellent and exciting works so far and there’s plenty to more come. Let’s all continue to support Sunderland Culture.”