From May 2020, Leicester Gallery began to deliver family activity online. Our intention was to sustain support and engagement with our existing local family audiences during the lockdown period in Leicester. It wasn’t seen as an opportunity to extend audience but to consolidate and deepen our relationship with participants during this disorientating and discomfiting time. Familiarity and continuity were the underlying values we wanted to embody in our activities.
Our workshopping approach in the gallery allowed each session to create new spaces for play building on previous sessions to enhance confidence amongst participants in the use of the space. There is a strong sense of community around the participants that can be seen through high levels of repeat visitation. This is nurtured by the staff, and it was finding ways to sustain this sense of community during lockdown that was the goal for us, and the most important aspiration for our online activity.
To do this we drew on the shared history of the sessions using imagery of participants in workshops as the starting point to create online activities. These were distilled into a series of activity sheets designed portraying participants and published as a book after lockdown, celebrating our families prevailing creativity during Leicester’s Lockdown.
Established in October 2017, Leicester Gallery’s monthly drop-in family workshop programme has become a cornerstone of engagement for families with children and young people aged 5-13 years old in the West End of Leicester. The work we do is made possible through personal relations that build between the staff and amongst participants, creating a group around 80 families whom are regular participants in the workshops.
The aim was to sustain this group over the period in which access to the familiar shared space of Leicester Gallery was not available. We looked at a range of models for distribution of online content, and decided that rather than driving change it would be more efficient to utilise the points of contact our community were familiar with. Facebook had been the most effective tool for sharing information around forthcoming activities, but also for managing the post session communications.
As part of the workshops over the last three years the photographic documentation, that often happens in parallel to workshops became an important and normalised part of the activity. The photographs were made available to the parents after the event. For those whom did not wish to have their photographs taken, they were under no pressure to opt in. The families that did join in were enthusiastic, with one parent saying:
‘There is no need to go to a photographer anymore when we get amazing free family photos here’.Family workshop parent participant
We used these images for our Facebook event marketing, but quickly realised that the children – and often parents were delighted to be the ‘hero’ of that month’s workshop.
Fundamentally, it was this familiar moment of visibility, and the enthusiasm with which it was met by families that shaped our online activity for families. We knew that it was important to continue to provide our learning programme provision in a way that resembled some aspect of normality that families would have experienced in the gallery, but also that it was flexible enough to be done in a home setting with materials readily available at home.
As a platform for the activity we explored delivering directly through the gallery website, but concluded that Facebook provided an adequate structure in terms dissemination, but more importantly a familiar online meeting point for participants. There is the scope through chat functions to provide immediate real time feedback on activities undertaken at home, and to ensure informal friendly responses to all those involved. As the sessions progressed we shifted some of the activity towards direct email contact for some participants whom we noticed were being side-lined by Facebook’s algorithm.
Worksheets designed by a local artist and ‘starring’ participants in previous workshops were released weekly throughout the lockdown period, on a Saturday during the same slot they would have been undertaken in Leicester. The activities were re-calibrated for domestic use but drew on the participants’ memories of sessions within the galleries. The aim of the weekly email out of the worksheets, even if families didn’t end up doing the activities at home, was to sustain dialogue and articulate memories of shared experiences within the group, and through this to sustainment, keep the affection for the group and its value alive.
Within our new approach to working with our family audience we aimed to:
- Directly connect with parents/carers to sustain the existing open dialogue
- Continue to build on the sense of community with those who participate in Leicester Gallery’s learning programme
- Continue our learning programme provision in a way that resembled some aspect of normality
- Enhance opportunities for children to develop their creativity in a home setting
- Ensure continued access to high quality cultural provision delivered by familiar faces
Throughout lockdown we noticed our Facebook event’s engagement drop, and we were no longer reaching the families who wanted to take part. This change fundamentally amounted to the decision to directly email families about the project. Maintaining direct contact with our family audiences in this way was and is important, and received a positive and highly engaged response. This was not just because families are receiving things that they are genuinely in need of, such as the activity sheets, conversation and interaction, but also because they care that the gallery is still playing an active role in the community. The families are at the heart of the activities, including in a visually literal way, and their enthusiasm was reflected in their engagement with the activity sheets and feedback.
‘That’s fab, thank you! I’ve printed it off, so Caroline can (and will) revel in her moment of fame! We used to love collaging – got to be honest, haven’t done as much as we used to, but this might inspire us to try again. We are missing the Gallery.’Family workshop participant
‘Love the drawings of our little superstars. Please keep sending the activity sheets to us if you don’t mind? We’re looking forward to coming back to your next event.’Family workshop participant
The one key outcome that we wanted to deliver through this programme was an ongoing dialogue with our participants 5 months after our last face to face encounter. This has been sustained successfully, and the uptake of activities and conversation have suggested that we have been successful creating a bridge for our community across the void of lockdown. However, as we emerge and move gently towards our first real world encounters in late September, we will have more of a sense of how well this has really worked.
Building on this, all workshops in future will now have an in-gallery session and accompanying activity sheets released and supported through Facebook. Our learning around our shift to direct email as well as Facebook has a real-world corollary in looking at both postal and collection models of distribution for activity packs and sheets for those unable to join the sessions. The more points of access there are, the more likely each family are to find a comfortable way to engage.
In terms of interactions the Facebook metrics per activity tell a good story and headlines can be seen here:
The underpinning values of community through bespoke one-to-one interaction is best captured through anecdotes and quotes. As one participant whose children were featured in a worksheet said:
‘The boys were delighted; the worksheet you have made looks great. We will be printing it off and using it as a home-schooling activity this week. I hope you are safe and well and I look forward to a time we can all come back to the gallery – I miss it!’
It is this that we wanted; to have utility during the lockdown, whilst marking a path back to real world encounters.
Project dates: March – August 2020
Funded by: De Montfort University