Carrie Cooper began working with ArtHouse Jersey in March 2020, just as the pandemic took hold of our Island. Here she shares her observations on the challenges the year presented, how ArtHouse Jersey faced them, and what the charity looks forward to delivering in 2021…
March 2020 would have been an interesting time to start any new job, not least, as it was for me, one in a sector utterly dependent on audiences: the arts. A broadcaster by trade, I’d been used to speaking about art from a journalistic standpoint, and although I’d always had an inherent passion for spreading the word of talented artists and celebrating the power of creativity, one had to wonder, was anything going to be left to celebrate with the virus decimating theatres, galleries, cinemas and music venues?
In what’s best described as a baptism of fire, working relationships were rapidly established as best they could be via Zoom as my new teammates analysed what was happening around them and the potential ramifications for the year’s programme. With so many ambitious plans afoot the first order of business was separating out what could go-ahead, what needed to be postponed, the things that had to be (gulp) cancelled, and what we could create in response to the pandemic in order to best serve our community.
Three things happened very quickly. First, we launched our ‘Nineteen Day Drawing Challenge’ alongside artist Will Bertram, inviting islanders, irrespective of their drawing ability, to join a community art effort during lockdown. Over 1,500 pieces of original artwork were submitted using the hashtag #isolationcreationjersey with social media engagement soaring. There seemed to be as much enjoyment taken by the people watching the challenge unfold as for the creators themselves, with many people talking of ‘rediscovering a forgotten skill’. At the same time, with our audience well and truly engaged, we launched our fresh digital platform ‘ArtHouse Jersey Presents’. As many observers have noted, the pandemic acted as an accelerant and this was true here. Creating an online platform for artists to create and share their work had been on the to-do list for some time and with people stuck at home, there was a huge demand that compelled us to make progress. With independent producers Paul Bisson and JP Le Blond offering expert technical support and advice, we were able to get things up and running and start offering commissions to the Island’s creatives within a few weeks.
Thirdly, in consultation with our ever-supportive sponsor, Skipton International, we took the decision to postpone our headline project, ‘Skipton Big Ideas’, to Autumn 2021 when it could be done justice, and designed a pandemic proof, community art project that responded to COVID, ‘Skipton Forget Me Knots’. This saw 3,400 children create flowers which made up a sophisticated, large-scale installation that, thanks to a window in restrictions in early Autumn, was visited enjoyed by over 2,200 islanders, despite the very many hoops we had to jump through during the production process and exhibition period in relation to social distancing.
As the year progressed, the challenges kept piling up. ‘The Face of Liberation’, our mosaic style portrait at Liberation Station, was undoubtedly an artistic highlight for both us and the Island at large. Before formally beginning with ArtHouse Jersey, I’d had the pleasure of working as a freelance researcher on the project, supporting then Producer Sophie Ridgeway and artist Helen Marshall of The People’s Picture to get out into the community and uncover some of those special, unheard stories from Liberation Day 75 years ago. Due to restrictions, the unveiling had to be postponed by four months, moving from May to September, but with the steadfast support of the media and the Bailiff’s Chambers, we found ways to keep the project alive and communicate the story of Liberation through this wonderful piece of work to the public, keeping our 6,000 contributors informed. In September, it was great to celebrate the launch of our chosen ‘Face of Liberation’, 92-year-old Barbara Jouanny, who thankfully was able to safely attend the unveiling and witness the artwork first hand. What a star she is!
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the pandemic was the impact it had on our community engagement programme. As a charity, a very significant part of our work involves reaching out to those in our community who face barriers to engaging with the arts and offering them high-quality yet accessible content. An example is our ‘Cake & Cabaret’ series, a variety show for the elderly that tours the Island’s Parish Halls. It came to an abrupt halt in the Spring, in line with government health guidelines. Thankfully we were able to devise a digital version on DVD to distribute to older people in our community who can continue to safely enjoy the entertainment at home. A CI Lottery grant of £30,000 (courtesy of the Association of Jersey Charities) allowed us to employ a dedicated Community Producer and under her direction, this project and many other outreach initiatives will remain at the top of our agenda as we continue to navigate the challenges presented by COVID19. In doing so, we will continue to honour our commitment to placing well-produced art and creative opportunities in each and every corner of Jersey’s society. Art is for everyone after all, not just the elite.
Of course, 2020 has been an incredibly difficult year for artists. Safely sharing work has required great adaptability as theatres and galleries have had to shut up shop. We are proud to have been able to help guide many artists through the labyrinth of seeming dead-ends to think about new ways of working. We’re supporting artists to continue to work with conviction while retaining an ongoing willingness to pull the trigger on plans B, C, D or even E, in order to ensure new work is delivered. Our ‘Meet the Producers’ programme helps with practical and professional guidance while our funding for artists financially invests in artists’ development and the pursuance of new or ongoing work, which will become the ‘magic’ with which we are able to engage the public in the future.
So what of 2021? The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed we recently published ‘ArtHouse Jersey: A Taste of 2021’, which gives a flavour of what’s to come in the year ahead. We say ‘a taste’ because we will have much more to add as the year goes on, and, given the ongoing situation, some aspects of the projects may need to be amended in order to be delivered safely. In springtime, we look forward to launching ‘The Roaming Soundtrack’ which, in partnership with DJ and Bestival founder Rob da Bank, will marry up the work of local photographers with established contemporary music artists to create a bespoke audio adventure celebrating iconic Jersey vistas. October 2021 sees the launch of Skipton Big Ideas, an ambitious interactive exhibition on a scale never seen before in Jersey. Hosted in the St Helier Town Church over two weeks, the exhibition focuses on the key issues affecting society today, featuring fourteen art installations by local and international artists, special evening performances and a host of lunchtime lectures and weekend workshops. We aim to engage the whole community in this exhibition and will invite everyone to join the conversations around how we can create a more inclusive and sustainable future for our Island home.
Our work in schools continues with the Genesis Education Programme, a project offered in partnership with the Government of Jersey’s Department for Children, Young People, Education and Skills (CYPES). With this work we continue to seek to improve the wellbeing of schoolchildren by encouraging communication and relationship building through creative collaborative work, all the while raising the overall standard of arts and creative education across the primary school sector. Children will continue exploring creativity through folklore with our The Map of Wonders project until June, with further projects in the pipeline for schools later in the year.
We will continue to support and showcase local artists through exhibitions both on our premises at Greve de Lecq Barracks and elsewhere around the Island, all the while spreading the word to, and strengthening connections with, the wider art world. We will also be launching a brand new blog and podcast series, exploring art with words, later in January.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank the many talented artists who continue to grow and thrive in this ever-changing landscape. It’s also important to send our deepest thanks to our supporters and corporate partners whose ongoing generosity makes this work possible. Finally, thank you to every single person who has directly (intentionally or unwittingly) come into contact with the work of ArtHouse Jersey over the last twelve months. For a year that has imposed distance, as an organisation we feel more connected than ever to our local community. Here’s to a brighter year ahead for us all, packed with colourful, vibrant, inclusive art that helps make Jersey an even better place to be.
To learn more about what’s in store for ArtHouse Jersey in 2021 visit the programme page on their website over at www.arthousejersey.je