Opinion Wellbeing

Connecting through culture

Alexandra Brierley

Alexandra Brierley, Director of Creative Learning at the Southbank Centre

In the last week before Christmas, the Southbank Centre hosted our first ever, streamed virtual team dance, live from the iconic Royal Festival Hall. Picking up the long-standing tradition of hosting social dances from our Clore Ballroom, and through the magic of Zoom, we were able to welcome back many of our regular attendees who we’ve missed so much while our doors have been closed, as well as participants in social care settings nationwide.

This initiative encapsulates everything that we’ve been doing at the Southbank Centre over the past year to bring a little light into peoples’ lives. There’s no question this year has been immeasurably tough for the arts, but it has also had a very real impact on so many in our communities who have found themselves further socially-isolated throughout this pandemic. As Director of Creative Learning here at the UK’s largest multi-arts venues, a core part of our mission is to reach those most excluded from cultural life, and in normal times we deliver an extensive Arts and Wellbeing programme designed to reach those facing social isolation and support their wellbeing through participatory creative activities. It was vital to us that we found a way – even during the darkest hours of national lockdowns – to continue.

Indeed, our social dances are a staple of our extensive Creative Learning and Arts & Wellbeing programme. As we took the format online, we were reminded once again of the power of communal activity. We witnessed first-hand participants up and down the country getting up to partake remotely, from their private living rooms to the shared spaces in our country’s care homes. And it was a salient reminder of the need to find ever-innovative ways of increasing access to enriching social encounters, particularly for those in our care and community settings.

Historically, over 40% of what we do at the Southbank Centre is free as we believe art should be available to as many people as possible. While we’ve been closed we have kept that commitment alive and, in many ways, lockdown has made us innovate our approach to reaching people who would never have been able to visit Southbank Centre in person.

Our (B)old creative workshops for people with dementia continued remotely via telephone tutoring and postal packs, and Art by Post – the ongoing, national arts and wellbeing project created in response to the Covid-19 emergency – has been sending free creative activity booklets through the post to people who are isolated and who don’t have digital access. People are now taking part in Art by Post from Aberdeen to Bangor and Truro to Dover, as we continue to fulfill our social mission of bringing art to our communities and providing the tonic that our nation so badly needs at this moment. And there’s much more to come yet for this truly vital scheme.

However, we have not been alone in this. So much of this work has been made possible through our evolving relationship with the National Academy for Social Prescribing, and our many creative and strategic partners UK-wide. Indeed, it was through our partnership with the National Activity Providers’ Association, that we were able to share details of our ‘virtual social dance’ with over 3,000 partner care homes and many socially-isolated people nationwide.

We do not know how much longer we will be dealing with the immediate and long-term consequences of the grave loneliness and isolation that has been brought on by Covid-19. However, I’m encouraged and inspired by the energy and dynamism of so many of my colleagues at organisations across the country who too are taking this moment to make a substantive difference to people’s lives through arts. While we work to get the physical spaces that comprise the Southbank Centre back up and running, we’ll stay committed to using our virtual – and postal – spaces to bring some togetherness and healing at this time.


For more information about the Southbank Centre, please visit: www.southbankcentre.co.uk


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