The art of community-mindedness: Click into Culture at Fabrica, Brighton – Q+A with Clare Hankinson

Street view of Fabrica’s exterior, Brighton.

Having settled in the deconsecrated Holy Trinity Church in Brighton’s city centre 25 years ago, arts organisation Fabrica has since worked tirelessly to engage with the local community as a social hub and support centre. 

The past twelve months have presented new challenges to the continuation of outreach programmes, tailored to the needs of vulnerable groups, that Fabrica has spent years developing. 

While their physical exhibiting space and workshop facilities have remained closed due to external factors, the arts organisation’s team of staff have been striving to extend socially-minded community programmes into the digital sphere.

Clare Hankinson, Fabrica’s Audience Development Manager, has been an indispensable driving force behind many of the organisation’s groundbreaking outreach initiatives in recent years. 

Her altruistic approach to audience development has given rise to the creation of community programmes that provide an exceptional level of local support from the multifaceted arts hub that she has worked with for just over a decade.

“One of our key aims as an organisation is to reach the broadest audience possible; that’s really inherent in our bones,” said Hankinson.

We spoke over Zoom this week about Fabrica’s community outreach initiatives, including their brand-new digital programme Click into Culture, which has been designed to assist people who might have difficulties with mobility or their personal health (that may ordinarily affect their access to art institutions) in experiencing artworks from home in a supportive online environment.

“Of course, with COVID, a lot of people are struggling to get out of the house but what we identified, really, was that it isn’t a new problem for a lot of people,” she said, and explained that Click into Culture has been designed with a post-pandemic future in mind.

We also discussed the opening of Olafur Eliasson’s upcoming exhibition at Fabrica, which has been in the works for a number of years and will be opened up to members of the public in May.

Although we were separated by the distance between two terminals of a Zoom call, it was easy to get a sense of the unmistakeable enthusiasm and passion Hankinson has for her work. 

Read the Q+A in full below:

SIS: Did Click into Culture start as an offshoot of the established Going to See Culture Together programme Fabrica runs monthly for older audiences?

CH: It is a bit of an offshoot of Going to See Culture Together. Click into Culture is probably the culmination of a few things. Luckily, we applied to take part in a Tech for Good research and development programme […] before the general lockdown happened. 

It was a 12 week program, and some of my colleagues took part in research, developing ideas, talking to the people we work with, participants we work with, digital engagement, what people use.

This gave us the chance to really dig down into where the barriers were for that group – or, actually, where there were opportunities – so as part of that project I got to develop some prototype ideas. 

We’d gone in specifically thinking about older people with low mental health, and one of the prototype ideas was basically what Click into Culture has become. We got really great feedback from the prototype testing that we did with some of our participants, but we realised that it wasn’t something that only older people might take advantage of.

Click into Culture, I hope, will be one of the things that we take forward as a digital activity in the long run, because we could be engaging people outside of the city – there should be no restrictions on where people are. So that might be exciting for [a new group] to connect with each other as well.

Our mental health programmes and lot of our older audiences programmes are heavily oversubscribed, so we’re always thinking of ways we can diversify and reach new people because otherwise you just feel like there’s so many people who are missing out.

SIS: How did Fabrica’s mental health support events and group workshops emerge – were these parts of a broader therapeutic arts initiative that the organisation has always worked towards?

CH: A lot of arts organisations over the last five or ten years have started to consider themselves as working on a health and wellbeing agenda. I think it’s taken us a while to really see ourselves as [an organisation] that could really apply to health-related funding. 

A big step change for us was when we started doing Men in Sheds, as that was a Public Health funded commission. I think that put us in the right networks to start […] working with doctors’ surgeries, and also with mental health organisations, with Public Health and suicide prevention services.

Often you still feel like the odd one out in the room, because the arts feels – when you’re working with frontline services – a little bit soft, but there’s obviously value there.

Those guys we’ve been working with through Men in Sheds for years […] – as soon as we weren’t able to open our doors we were phoning them every week. We were trying to suggest things to do from home, and trying to connect people together, and getting them involved in anything else that we were doing. We ended up really trying to find [things that would be] suitable to each individual that we know.

SIS: Have you been able to continue your regular workshop programmes and support events for children and young audiences, such as CHOMP, throughout the pandemic?

CH: The situation of lockdown has meant that we’ve tried and tested so many routes to keep engaging people, and I would say it’s certainly – unsurprisingly – not a ‘one size fits all’ situation.

There were a few things we’d planned for young people and children that haven’t gone ahead […]. We run a lunch club for low income families that just couldn’t run as an event […] and the really big opportunity with that event is that the families get to meet each other, mix and mingle, and create together and support each other.

Several community programmes were sending out food hampers to those families, so […] nine times we sent out a hundred activity packs alongside the food hampers so that they were getting something a bit more interactive physically to do from home – obviously making sure that they had some materials provided, and that it was something that was also replicable – something using household recycling materials, and things like that.

SIS: It must have been difficult to shift programmes that you’ve spent so much time building up as people’s needs and capabilities changed during the past twelve months – and some vulnerable groups have been struggled even more to engage with the wider community as many of us have not been connected in the ways we would ordinarily be. Do you think that when Fabrica is able to reopen as an arts hub, interest in those small group events will return?

CH: A lot of our events run really regularly. And I can’t think of one that has totally lost touch over lockdown.

Access to digital [technology] has obviously become a much more understood disadvantage, if you can’t get online; we’ve had a relationship with city council-led Seniors Housing for a long time and they have free wifi, but only in the lounge – so when people didn’t want to leave their flats during lockdown they were totally away from the wifi connection.

We’ve been able to engage people with the bespoke projects we do [but] where we’ve probably lost a big part of our dialogue is people coming in to see an exhibition and having a really good chat with the front of house team, and […] coming across it in this church, and not knowing what to expect. I think that’s something you can’t replicate online in the same way.

SIS: You must be looking forward to having the option to organise in-person events again soon; is part of the pleasure of audience development seeing the reactions from your visitors and groups in the moment, in the physical space?

CH: Yes, and there’s something about trust as well with these programmes – a lot of the work we do is about getting someone’s trust, especially if they don’t think that art is for them, or that it is elitist … 

It’s very hard to get all of that through a digital medium, and we’ve all had to become accustomed to that, haven’t we?

SIS: Fabrica’s upcoming exhibition, Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forest Path, is going to be shown through a Click into Culture event in April – but will it also be open to the public in the gallery’s main art space?

CH: Yes, from the 17th of May, when non-essential businesses can open. That’s the plan, and we’ve extended it into June to make the most of the show.

It’s one of those shows that we’ve been working on for a few years and it is [a piece] that is very encompassing, and physical, and fun – all of those things that are classic Fabrica. It’s like a little magical forest.

SIS: Looking ahead, are there any projects that you’ll be working on this year that you’re particularly excited about?

CH: There’s existing projects that we haven’t been able to do recently, like the dementia-focused programmes – I’m really looking forward to getting back into discussing those and getting the gears turning again.

I am hoping that we’ll get something that will give us a bit of longer-term support towards Click into Culture. There’s always so many ideas, and so little time!

Fabrica will be exhibiting Olafur Eliasson’s The Forked Forest Path between 18 May – 20 June. Accessibility information can be found here.

For further information about Fabrica’s special events programmes, visit their Events site here.

Many thanks to Clare Hankinson for her time, and for speaking with Sophie I See.

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