Planning culture beyond Covid

Research project supports reopening venues in Northern Ireland
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Simon Stephens
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The MAC arts centre in Belfast has reopened its three galleries
The MAC arts centre in Belfast has reopened its three galleries

As museums, galleries and other cultural organisations in Northern Ireland continue to reopen their doors to visitors, the sector is being supported by an audience research project called Culture Beyond Covid.

The initiative, led by audience development agency Thrive and backed by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Organisations Emergency Programme and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, is designed to help organisations find out how audience motivations and behaviours are being influenced by the pandemic as well as ongoing government restrictions and messaging.

The first Culture Beyond Covid research strand is aimed at visual arts venues in Northern Ireland. Participating galleries are encouraging their audiences to complete a survey and are then using the results to compare themselves with other venues. Culture Beyond Covid for the visual arts sector closes today and the full results will be shared mid-October.

The next two strands of Culture Beyond Covid will take place in mid-October for ticketed organisations and in November for heritage organisations, including museums.

The MAC arts centre in Belfast has already taken part in an earlier Thrive research project called After the Interval, which was designed for ticketed organisations trying to cope with the challenge of loss of ticket revenue, which was one of the immediate impacts of Covid-19.

“After the Interval gave us lots of useful insights into when people would feel comfortable returning, with what measures in place and what we could do to reassure them of the MAC’s status as a Covid-secure venue,” a MAC spokeswoman said. “Our own concerns have centred around how to be a vibrant cultural hub and play our role in the return to normal for our community.”

The MAC has been able to open its three galleries and its cafe, but not its live performance spaces. The venue has taken a number of measures to make sure people feel safe and secure when visiting, including an online booking system for the galleries; a one-way customer journey from entrance to exit; hand sanitising stations on every floor; and a 2-metre social distancing rule, which is indicated on floor vinyl and way-finding signage. Customers and staff are wearing face coverings.

The MAC has deliberately reduced daily footfall by making gallery slots available to a maximum of 50 visitors per slot. There are slots available every half hour throughout the day and opening hours have been reduced to 10am-4pm. All of this has had an inevitable knock on effect to visitor numbers, but the centre is pleased to have welcomed more 2,500 through the doors this past month.

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Going forward, the MAC is keen to be able to open its performance spaces and is working hard to spread the word about its all-day cafe bar.

“Financially, the entire sector is in a dire state,” said the MAC spokeswoman. “We have just last week had word on the £33m that was allocated to Northern Ireland as part of the funding announcement last July. The arts, culture and heritage sector is to receive £29m of the allocation, so the next stage will be making our voice heard as part of the wider Arts Collaboration Network [a group of cultural sector support organisation] to ensure that money is distributed quickly and to those who so desperately need it.”

Other arts centres in Northern Ireland have been gradually reopening.

The Centre for Contemporary Art Derry~Londonderry reopened in mid-September but had to close on 29 September “because of potential contact in the gallery with someone who is being tested for COVID-19”, according to its website. But the venue was in fact safe to reopen the following day.

Belfast’s Golden Thread Gallery reopened on 2 September for visits booked in advance, with a maximum number of 10 visitors will be allowed into the venue during each time-slot. The photography gallery Belfast Exposed also reopened on 2 September.

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