Growing an older audience at Fabrica

The long view

Fabrica is a contemporary art gallery based in a former Regency church in Brighton. We commission exhibitions to support and encourage emerging and established artists to develop their creative practices, to test boundaries and encourage open dialogue with audiences in the gallery. Our integrated programme of education and activity strives to remove the barriers to arts engagement for the widest audience possible, working with professional artists and facilitators to maintain high quality experiences for all.

‘Men in Sheds’ visit the V&A in 2017. Image courtesy of Fabrica.

Back in 2010, we embarked on a three-year project that aimed to grow our older audience, with a particular emphasis on people aged 70+, who were amongst some of our least represented audiences. The project offered a unique opportunity to research, explore and experiment a holistic programme that incorporated audience development, events and artist commissioning, and allowed room for evolution in our organisational approach. A wide variety of cross-sector partnerships begun and our community networks grew exponentially.

Growing an Older Audience was funded by Arts Council England and introduced a diverse and stimulating programme of free and low-cost daytime events to local older people, offering several different access points to our engagement programme, whether motivated by a keen interest in art, or through seeking out social interaction or by addressing an access need. Many of these events continue to this day.

For example, Armchair Critics (later named Conversation Piece) provides exhibition based discussions led by Italian artist and featuring a topic specialist. Participants attend with the knowledge they will hear from diverse speakers on subjects from ‘What makes a good death?’ to ‘The History of Fishing in Brighton’, and that all attendees can contribute and be heard in a valid, respected arena.

Going to See Culture Together provides a monthly outing to a cultural venue in the city or region. Facilitator Jonathan Quarterman supports the group to attend various enjoyable and unusual events and experiences of their choosing, whilst also ensuring accessibility and affordability for all. This has cemented a strong following and a trust in both Jonathan and Fabrica.

‘Going to See Culture Together’ – November 2016 trip to Cameron Contemporary Art Gallery. Image courtesy of Fabrica.

According to estimates from the UK’s Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) one in 30 people of any age, one in five aged 75 or over, and half of those over age 90 years in the UK are living with sight loss. We created Second Sight, an exhibition workshop designed to be accessible to visually impaired people, providing audio descriptive tours, sensory experiences and making, and saw predominantly older participants attend.

We began reaching out to harder-to-reach older people through a new Fabrica Ambassador Programme, visiting and building bridges with community groups, organisations and care homes, giving us a friendly face outside the gallery. Ambassadors from our volunteer programme have been instrumental in encouraging new visitors to take those first, tentative steps across the threshold and into the gallery, particularly through bespoke ‘Very Private Views’ for groups at exhibitions.

Our monthly e-newsletter, Daytime Arts Events for Adults, compiles affordable exhibitions, events and opportunities across the city, reaching over 1000 subscribers. We’re keen to introduce other cultural venues and opportunities in the area, to encourage people to take ownership of their city, make new social connections and grow interest and confidence.

I think the gallery has become a welcoming space of culture and has opened up great opportunities to keep in touch with the current art world. Going To See Culture Together has sent out an inspiring lifeline to those of us in the Brighton community who probably would not have normally ventured into many of these experiences alone. For that I am most grateful. This project has become very important to my quality of life as a retired person who lives alone. It has raised my spirits overall and made me feel more part of a community.

Fabrica participant

Our partnership working evolved as we have grown to understand the challenges and huge benefits of working with health and social care sector partners. We have worked consistently, through different projects, with Brighton & Hove City Council Seniors Housing since 2012 and this partnership has given us unique opportunities to work with adults in the city who face acute challenges day-to-day.

‘Second sight’ at the Blue Route exhibition by Kaarina Kaikkonsen, 2013. Image courtesy of Daniel Yanez-Gonzalez

Embedding better understanding and awareness within our staff team as to some of the barriers that older people face when accessing the arts, we have embraced new ways of working, partnerships and open attitudes that create a legacy within the organisation. Our older audiences programme has influenced the way we work with other key audience groups. Doing this successfully has taken time, patience and commitment, but has been well worth it.

Alongside Growing an Older Audience, we worked with Morris Hargreaves McIntyre to evaluate the project in full. The report and executive summary can be found online here. We have been working hard to find other ways to continue key parts of the Growing an Older Audiences project, such as events, newsletters and staff training, for several years now. Creating a sense of continuity has given our programme integrity and proven our commitment to working long-term with hard to reach audiences. Additionally , through developing new, often discreet projects with a focus on social isolation, mental health and wellbeing, or dementia, we’ve been able to retain regular attenders and developed relationships with hundreds more people in the city. Those who grow to know and trust us become more mobile between different the different activities we offer, understanding that they are welcome In our venue and at our events, often taking a chance on something new.

Conversation piece at Elipda Hadzi-Vasileva’s exhibition, ‘Fragility’, 2015. Image courtesy of Rebecca Turner.


Over time, our relationship with older audiences have developed, and some have become collaborators, artists and supporters. The long-term impact continues to be seen. For example, our thriving volunteer programme started to broaden its age range during Growing an Older Audience (see graph), and this trend has continued to become much more representative in its age range over the past five years as several older people have joined the now truly intergenerational volunteer team, which boasts over 100 adults age 18 – 80 years.

In the wake of Growing an Older Audience, our experience and partnerships has led to new developments in our organisation. In 2016 we commissioned a new light-based installation, Luminary by Ron Hasledon, inspired by workshops he did locally and nationally with older ‘non-drawers’. Funded by the Baring Foundation’s ‘Late Style’ programme, which aimed to showcase exceptional older artists, this exhibition acted as a platform to recognise and celebrate the contributions and successes that Fabrica’s older audience has made in the past few years.

During the exhibition, we worked with some of our regular participants to deliver an event titled The Vital Ingredient. Five speakers aged 60+ spoke about one of each of the Five Ways to Wellbeing and how creative experiences have helped them, eg. Take Notice by Rosie, a regular at our Tuesday Life Drawing class, and Connect by Elizabeth, a Going to See Culture Together attender who is also hearing impaired.

In 2017 we opened a Men in Sheds project, funded by BHCC Public Health. This is a unique project for us, as it provides regular contact time of 15hrs per week in a venue outside of the gallery, embedded in the community that it supports. Aimed at reducing social isolation, depression and suicide in adult men, it provides a shared space where men can come together to work on personal or shared projects, shoulder to shoulder.

In early 2018 we saw incredible contributions from people as part of our KEEP FABRICA Crowdfunding campaign, with messages of support and generous donations to the organisation. When one regular dropped in to the office to give us a cheque, after thanking her she told us that ‘Fabrica is the only place I don’t feel patronised.’

We are about to embark on a new partnership with the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Brighton, through a research project they are leading on in the ethical issues of self-funded care, which is co-produced with older people. Supported by a research enrichment grant from Wellcome Trust, they will collaborate with us on the public engagement of the project through an artist film commission. 

All of the ground work that was established during Growing an Older Audience continues to lead us in new directions, deepening our relationships with older people across Brighton & Hove and creating challenging new commissions for artists and practitioners along the way.

Clare Hankinson
Audience Development Manager

Partner organisations: Brighton & Hove City Council, Sussex Partnership Trust, Brighton College. Various arts and cultural organisations including ONCA, Royal Pavilion & Museums and Phoenix Brighton.

Funders: Arts Council England, Dementia Action Alliance & Age UK, The Homity Trust, Brighton & Hove City Council Public Health.