Engaging communities remotely at Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange

Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange is an educational arts charity and Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, which presents contemporary work in all media by regional, national and international artists across its two sites in West Cornwall. We are a lean staff with a programming team of six people, who move freely between exhibition and education input and output.

We are proud of a reputation for the high quality of our programme. This is not only a reflection on the dedication of the team but also our commitment to utilising the best resources possible, which includes the commissioning of artist-educators. We look for people who understand the value of collaborative working, whose own practice demonstrates investigation and experimentation, who are interested and engaged in other people’s ideas and who intuitively support participants in developing their own working.

Tea Cake & Art

Tea Cake & Art is a relaxed weekly social group for older people. Through leaflets and posters at GP surgeries and sheltered accommodation, we have specifically targeted those who live in isolation and are in danger of loneliness. Established in April 2019 at The Exchange, our venue in Penzance, these Tuesday afternoon sessions are artist-led with activities to date including drawing, painting, printing, weaving, clay-modelling and mobile-making. No previous experience of art is required and we welcome participants living with dementia and their carers, who are welcome to remain in the session or to enjoy a little time out. The sessions are free and include tea and cake and plenty of time to chat. Participation in the creative activity is self-selective, the atmosphere is friendly and often lively. The group is also very supportive and we have seen firm friendships form and extend beyond the sessions.

Although Tea Cake & Art is managed by our Events Programmer, the entire staff team are passionate about the value of the group and each one of us has either participated in sessions or has led activity at some point.

Tea Cake & Art grew out of learning gained from a project called Home Service, which ran from 2014–16 and placed two artists in residence in two residential care homes. We learnt a huge amount through this experience, including the importance of tea and cake in the daily routine of the home, bringing everyone together and providing the opportunity for social interaction.

Within months of opening, 40 older people had signed up to Tea Cake & Art with between 20–26 members attending any one session — a challenge for the most seasoned artist-educator! The need for this facility was self-evident and we soon began to make plans to extend not only the room in which the group met, but also our offer.

Tea Cake & Art in Covid-19

The last in-house Tea Cake & Art was on 10  March 2020. As we began to absorb the escalation of Covid-19 and anticipate closure and self-isolation, we knew how vital it would be to retain contact with members of Tea Cake & Art. There was an urgency in our actions, wanting both to reassure members while also adapting the programme before staff were furloughed. The first step was to talk to the members and find out what would be of most value to them. Our Events Programmer and Development Manager sent out emails and made phone calls and together worked out how the group could most effectively continue. Those who were confident and regular users of technology were keen to continue to meet but virtually. Very few of them had used Zoom before and so our Digital Programme Producer set up one-to-one tutorials and a trial group Zoom on 31 March.

Artist Alice Mahoney had already been commissioned to lead the next set of sessions at The Exchange and so it seemed natural to offer these as a focus for the online meet ups. For those who couldn’t or who didn’t want to meet online we offered to post out activities each week. Currently we have a core of eight regular virtual attendees with a mail-out to 22.

Tea Cake & Art on Zoom

We consider this remote version of Tea Cake & Art as a work in progress, fine-tuning its delivery as we go. Recently, for example, we were struck by a comment by one of our online regulars:

These sessions are my once a week contact with other human beings.

It raised the question of how to create that human element for our mail-out participants. In early discussions there was an ambition to phone members of the group on a weekly basis but as the concept of furlough sank in we realised that this would be a considerable challenge for the handful of staff still working, particularly as some weeks that can be as few as two people. From the next mail-out we began to add a handwritten postcard. It’s fun trying to find cards that reflect the general theme of the week’s activity. It’s a small gesture but one which hopefully reassures participants that we’re all still out there and that we care.

Over the weeks we’ve had letters back from some of our mail-out members which gives us an insight into how they’re participating:

…Not having internet access at home restricts my engagement with many things so I really appreciate being included in the Tea Cake & Art session. In fact, I went through the exercises on Tuesday afternoon so felt part of the group, even if remotely. I continued with some extra activities the following day as it stimulated more thoughts around drawing.

While others may not be following the workshops, they still appreciate the regular contact:

My art-at-home sessions are entirely haphazard as I’ve had a bit of an up-and-down few weeks one way and another. But I love getting the lessons through the post and they are all there for when I can be more focussed!

Using a video communication platform does impact on the way the sessions are both delivered and participated in. They’re inevitably less organic and free-flowing. Alice starts by checking-in with everyone. The group doesn’t tend to respond by sharing how they feel or how their week has been but rather will talk about other activity they’ve participated in, or radio and television programmes that relate to conversations from past sessions. Programmes such as Grayson’s Art Club regularly surface. What the virtual platform does not allow for is the sharing of a witty aside with the person sat next to you or to discuss more personal matters with a selected few. We’ve lost the members who would just turn up to touch base and sit and chat over tea and cake. We have however gained new members online, including one or two younger people:

The Newlyn workshops for me have been something I can tune into weekly to keep proactive. I enjoy the relaxed vibe and sense of community…the tasks are often quite simple and straight forward so there’s no pressure and I always really love my outcomes.

Tea Cake & Art has very quickly become part of the fabric of our organisation but with the average age of members at 69, and so at moderate risk of contracting Covid-19, they will inevitably be one of the very last social groups to physically meet again in our gallery spaces. With both our Events Programmer and Development Manager now on furlough the co-ordination of Tea Cake & Art has fallen to one of our Programme Curators. When she leaves for furlough at the end of June, our Director will take over. A regular visitor to the in-house sessions, he’s looking forward to experiencing its online rendering and catching up with the group. He has a proposal for them: a plein air Tea Cake & Art session in August when the galleries will hopefully reopen.

Cat Gibbard
Programme Curator & Learning Lead

Tamsin Young
Development Manager

Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange

All images Tea Cake & Art, Newlyn & The Exchange