We talk to Bradley Hemmings about the Greenwich Dockland International Festival's reimagining of their participation and engagement programme through the pandemic.

March 5, 2021
Photo of the author - Monique Ricketts

Monique Ricketts

Greenwich Dockland International Festival (GDIF), like many outdoor arts organisations reimagined their participation and engagement programme in 2020.

Bradley Hemmings, Artistic Director at FESTIVAL.ORG shared some top tips and learnings from their programme, Weaving Together ‘a metaphor for community resilience and diversity during the pandemic’.

Hyperlocal rather than large scale spectacles

‘We’ve had to be inventive and adaptable…you don’t have to fall back on established practice’.

Rather than seeking to attract people from a wider catchment to artworks presented in town centres, focus on your local neighbourhoods and communities. Programme and design many more intimate events or activities to be delivered locally, rather than one-off large scale destination spectacles.

Create and communicate an environment that is safe

The journey back to festival events will undoubtedly be different across audiences, create a nuanced approach to engage with those inordinately affected by the pandemic. Be clear in communicating your hygiene arrangements, reassure your audience you are taking things seriously.

Connect to your community through local ‘essential services’ hubs

The GDIF team worked alongside their local food distribution hub at the Woolwich Common Community Centre to distribute creative provocations directly to their local community. Providing a simple weaving exercise to display in their window, along with poetry from a local poet and activist Rasheeda Page-Muir who later performed at the festival.

It’s more important than ever to connect to things that are currently happening

Rather than seeking out new channels to reach communities, connect through existing channels where groups feel most at ease. GDIF worked with the Caribbean Social Forum through their adapted weekly meeting which had moved online and became a vital support line and community service. The weaving project Faith, Love and Hope involved a series of online workshops during the weekly meeting, where the group used the flag colours of the different Caribbean countries to create artwork later presented at the festival.

Strengthen relationships with local people who are active & supportive of their local communities

Much like the approach of ACE CPPs, establish and work with local connectors and practitioners to encourage involvement, deepen your understanding and your relationship with your community. Go beyond reaching out and engaging, employ them in outreach activity and tasks so they are part of the team. With audiences set to return to events at varying rates – due to travel and other concerns, the shift away from a destination approach to engage with local audiences is more important than ever.

Develop content with and for D/deaf, disabled audiences

‘Deaf BSL users created a special film inspired by Luke Jerram’s “Lullaby” , which connected the project with a much wider audience’

Bradley discussing an element of the lullabies engagement project.

The shift to create digital content during the pandemic has brought to the forefront the need to ensure content is accessible for all. Work alongside audiences identifying as disabled to create accessible content which appeals to a much wider audience.

As we’ve seen in our COVID-19 Cultural Participation Monitor, there has been a high proportion of audience identifying as disabled engaging with digital arts and cultural content online than they would have done physically pre-pandemic. Creating or delivering digital content or activities beyond lockdown easing, will undoubtedly be important going forward.