Participatory Arts – Capturing The Learning, A Response From Kelly Barr, Arts and Creativity Programme Manger, Age Cymru

In response to the lockdown triggered by COVID-19, many arts organisations have taken their work online, sharing content for audiences to view for free. However, creating participatory engagement online is much more challenging and, as a sector used to being face to face with people in their practice, it’s clear that the current restrictions change the nature of participatory arts based activity substantially.

Following a vital conversation on social media led by Guy O’Donnell, Learning and Participation Producer, National Dance Company Wales which opened a discussion on how we can deliver participatory arts effectively, a range of partners are collaborating to lead Zoom discussions for the sector where we can talk about the impact of the lockdown on our work and work creatively together to think beyond the lockdown.

In partnership with ArtWorks Cymru a series of free Zoom meetings have been set up to discuss and share current working practices in participatory delivery.

Capturing the Learning

These Zoom meetings will explore how we capture the learning from organisations and artists who are currently delivering projects. We’ll explore what methods are working well, what are we learning through this experience, and how we are adapting our working practices.

Kelly Barr, Arts and Creativity Programme Manger
Age Cymru hosted the first Zoom participation meeting. The meetings are free to attend but numbers are limited. Kelly gives an overview of the work Age Cymru has created to meet the challenges and the companies solutions to support the public and her service users in the current climate.

Hi can you tell me a little about yourself and your organisation?

Hi, I’m Kelly Barr, and I am the Arts and Creativity Programme Manager at Age Cymru, who are the national charity for older people in Wales. I have been working on participatory arts projects with all sorts of organisations for 6 years, including NDCWales, Earthfall and the Sherman.

The two main arts projects here at Age Cymru are Gwanwyn Festival, an annual celebration of creative ageing which happens in May each year, and cARTrefu, the largest arts in care homes project in Europe.

We also run other projects throughout the year that might try to tackle isolation and loneliness (like our Gwanwyn Clubs), stereotypes of ageing or representation of older people.

Your organisation is hosting one of the free Participatory Arts – Capturing the Learning / Beyond the Lockdown meetings. Why do you agree to support these events?

I am in a very fortunate position to still be working at this time, and I felt like I had a responsibility to support conversations within the participatory sector. I saw many people reacting wonderfully quickly and adapting their practice, but I also recognised that that isn’t always an option, particularly with the groups of people that I work with. I have always believed that we have much to learn from each other so it was an ideal opportunity to do my bit to support some good practice sharing.

What challenges has lockdown present to the delivery of your service?

Gwanwyn Festival has often been about bringing people together, many of whom are in the high-risk category at the moment, so we made the decision fairly swiftly to postpone the festival.

We had a duty of care to protect the people that might attend the festival events, and those that are running them.The creative ageing sector is very supportive so I have been lucky enough to have regular chats with colleagues across the UK and Ireland (Gwanwyn Festival was inspired by Bealtaine Festival), so that we can support each other to think about how festivals like ours might work moving forwards.

We also knew early on that it was going to be difficult to continue to deliver the cARTrefu project, as care homes were starting to close their doors in early March. We’re lucky to have supportive funders who we will be able to work closely with as things progress. We have multiple scenario plans but are very much being led by what care homes want and need right now.

What issues have your service users/participants faced?

I’m really proud to be part of Age Cymru, as they have been able to adapt really quickly during the pandemic to ensure that older people in Wales are supported. We run an Information and Advice line, which received a 200% increase in calls at the start of the pandemic; people needed advice on whether they should be self-isolating or shielding, where they could get support with food shopping and collecting prescriptions. People have also struggled to access their money, and needed support to find new ways to stay in touch with family members. I’m pleased to say that we have been able to help, in partnership with our local Age Cymru partners, Age Connects and other voluntary services across Wales.

What systems did you put in place to ensure delivery?

Many of us are well-used to working from home, but it’s been really important to find moments to connect with colleagues. Many of us are spending most of our day making calls to older people through our Check In and Chat service, so it’s not always easy to have online ‘meetings’ as often as we used to have physical meetings. So we’ve set up Whatsapp groups, we send voice-notes, have catch-up phone calls, send pet pictures (in my case, plants!) as well as whole team Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings. It’s ever changing and adapting!

With my specific work, it’s about being available to our partners and being flexible and open about the realities. We’ve been taking time as a team to think further ahead, and problem solve, and take any opportunities we can. We’re also keen to use Gwanwyn and cARTrefu Facebook, Gwanwyn Twitter and cARTrefu Instagram to promote creative opportunities for older people as far as we can.

Did you have any particular challenges or success that you would like to share?

Back in April, I, like many people who are in a position to, wanted to offer out informal chats to anyone interested in running creative ageing projects, or having to adapt current projects. I had no expectations of what would come from this, only that it felt like the right thing to do, but it’s introduced me to new practitioners and individuals, which has helped to build up my understanding of what’s happening in Wales. Many people I might have struggled to physically meet pre-lockdown, due to being based in Cardiff, I have been able to connect with over the phone. I hope to continue to offer this out and to meet more people – digitally!

What are your plans for future delivery?

We’re exploring a range of options at the moment, but we’ll be working closely with our Gwanwyn Festival event organisers to look at how this might be possible. There may be ways to replicate events online, or using social distance rules. I have no doubt that our event organisers are already coming up with innovative and interesting ways to continue to connect to people and I’m looking forward to working together to adapt and learn!

With cARTrefu, we are ensuring that we are listening to care homes, and being led by their needs right now. We have developed a fortnightly e-newsletter that gives care homes low-resource activities to try, and links to lots of online performances and activities from Age Cymru (like Tai Chi classes, now on our website) and other organisations.

I’m aware that we’re now regularly speaking to people that are more isolated, some of whom who aren’t connected to the internet, so a lot of my thinking has been about how to stay connected to them and to provide interactive creative opportunities that are offline.

I’d like to highlight Age Cymru’s Friend in Need service that has launched this week, and direct anyone to it if they’ve been supporting someone who is self-isolating or shielding through lockdown. There’s lots of useful guides and resources, as well as details of our new Befriending scheme – Friend in Need

A range of organisations have worked to continue delivery of their art form during lockdown are there any that you would like to mention that you found either professionally or personally useful?

I’d love to highlight the wonderful speakers from our first Participatory Arts Capturing the Learning Event:

Artis Community, Re-Live and Welsh National Opera.

And I’d love to shout out to all of the cARTrefu artists whose work has suddenly come to a grinding halt with us, but have been helping us to provide creative activities for care homes remotely.

Thanks for your time  Kelly

The meeting notes from Participatory Arts, Capturing the Learning – Older Peoples Zoom Meeting that Kelly hosted hosted on Thursday 28 May, can be found at the link


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