The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London has run artmaking workshops for children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) and their families since 2014. Regular sessions are led by experienced artist educator Cash Aspeek inspired by themes in the RA exhibitions and collection.
There are limited places available. Families submit their access requirements when they sign up so that the activities can be tailored especially for them.
In autumn 2020 we trialled an online iteration of these workshops, working closely with a small group of families familiar to the programme – several of whom were shielding at the time.
Inspired by domestic scenes in the delayed Summer Exhibition, each household received a free materials package including rolls of colourful paper, tape, chalk pens, wool and paint sticks.
In their own imaginative ways, the families transformed their homes into artworks to be lived with – for example, wrapping and decorating chairs, or making patterned tablecloths and ornaments.
Since then, we have continued to work in this way – forging relationships with new families living local to us in Westminster.
We have adapted to this new way of working in a number of ways:
A broad materials offer has always played a part in making our programme inclusive – offering multiple ways into exploring a common theme.
In preparing our packages to send home, we have found that attention to detail has been key.
We have asked for even more detailed information about each child's preferences for materials, textures, and colours, as well as information about their mobility and dexterity.
In future, we would like to explore including a more sensory material such as paint in our packages. Although we have found some families are concerned about making a mess at home, we know this option would enable others to gain more from the sessions.
Looking after each family
We have found that building in a phone call prior to each workshop helps to build confidence.
This has been especially useful when working with new families as we have found fewer opportunities for 1:1 relationship-building on Zoom.
Knowing the names of every family member attending has helped to make the whole family feel included.
Limiting capacity to about seven families has made the sessions feel intimate and has allowed ample time to check-in and make conversation with each.
Likewise, running two to three workshops with each group has given us more time to build a rapport, gather feedback, and adapt accordingly.
Sustaining energy levels
After trialling different lengths, we have found that shorter sessions of around 90 minutes tend to work best.
Making sure that the families know they can step away for breaks when needed has enabled us to sustain engagement until the end.
Breaking up each session into small chunks and including short physical activities has helped to energise the group.
Creating a sense of togetherness
Given that one of the core aims is to bring families with shared experiences together, we have requested that they keep their cameras switched on.
We have encouraged families to use the Zoom gallery viewing mode, so that they can check in on what the others are doing. The spotlight feature has been useful for demonstrations and for when they take turns to share their work at the end.
Lastly, we have asked that everyone keeps their microphones turned on (where possible). This cuts through the silence and helps the group to feel connected.
At the end, we admire each other’s work and encourage clapping. It can sometimes be difficult to hear clearly, and staff do take a flexible approach to muting microphones in these cases. However, creating a sense of togetherness feels more important.
Our advice to museums or galleries hoping to set up similar programmes would be to build relationships with, listen to and collaborate with parents and carers – after all, they are experts in knowing what support their child might need.
Each group of families brings a different dynamic, so a flexible approach and readiness to adapt is essential.
We know that for some families there is no replacement for in-person interaction, a large studio space and an array of messy art materials.
Yet over the past year, we have witnessed countless moments of joy brought about by the experience of making together and connecting through our screens.
Several families have requested that we maintain an online strand going forward. In these cases, working remotely removes some of the physical barriers encountered on their journey to the RA and allows them to participate on their own terms.
Considering this, we will continue to explore this new way of working and move towards a blended offer in future.
Lily McGuire is family programmer at the RA.