Arts and community groups came together last week to celebrate a partnership to break down barriers and make culture more accessible.
Around 100 people attended the formal launch of Arts Together Leeds at Slung Low’s The Holbeck last Thursday.
They were treated to opera and film performances. Partners also delivered workshops and celebrated joining forces with like-minded people.
The £120,000 three-year project began in January with a developmental phase. Arts Together Leeds has already built up a network of 61 partners who want to make it easier for community groups to become actively engaged with the wealth of visual arts, music and live performances in the city and further afield.
The initiative is being co-ordinated by Leeds based Opera North. Its head of Community Partnerships Madeleine Thorne is leading the project, which helps share expertise via networking.
She added: “Really at the heart of it is this idea that we want to make sure people, who might normally have barriers to engaging with the arts, can engage with a wide range of things that are going on throughout Leeds and beyond.”
Madeleine said they want to make community groups aware of accessible, affordable, relevant and interesting events. But they also need to work with organisations staging them to make sure events were welcoming to a new audience.
The Opera North official added: “For a lot of people we work with, like asylum seekers, everything is new when they come to the opera. For a lot of people they have never been in a theatre, museum or a dance performance. It’s just putting all those things in place to make sure people feel absolutely welcome and included and are guided through the process.”
One such example of making art accessible is Opera North’s first dementia friendly performance of La bohème. The classic opera will be made dementia friendly by the relaxed atmosphere in the auditorium. Lights will stay dimmed so people can see what is going on. People will have more space and be free to come and go. There will also be “break out” areas where people can take time out from the performance at Leeds Grand Theatre on Thursday, October 24 at 2.30pm.
Events like this are also being highlighted on the artstogetherleeds.co.uk website. The listings website, which was also launched last week, aims to be a one stop shop of accessible events where people can sample different cultural activities.
Madeleine hopes that people will become more receptive to all sorts of different art forms once they’ve taken the initial plunge into the arts world. She said people who came to their opera events were often more open to trying new things afterwards. She added: “Once you have taken one risk it kind of emboldens you to be more experimental.”
She hopes the three-year project, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, will help build up stronger and closer relationships between different groups throughout the city, And that people will try out a wide range of events. The early signs are it is doing just that as more partners are expected to sign up to the scheme following last week’s launch. Madeleine added: “I can’t think of a clever way to say it but we want to generate a little bit of love and compassion. Good vibes mean a lot at the moment. Just people feeling that they are part of something. That they are welcome and together. All of these things are really important.”
Opera North, which is co-ordinating Arts Together Leeds, has a long track record of engaging with community groups.
The Leeds based opera company has run its Community Partnerships scheme since 2013.
Its ethos, like Arts Together Leeds, is engaging people who might otherwise encounter barriers to being fully involved with the arts.
This year Opera North has six community partners. These include Ripon House which provides temporary accommodation and support for female ex-offenders; BAME Health & Wellbeing Hub which works with older people from the BAME community in Chapeltown; Caring for Life, a farm-based charity providing accommodation, activities and emotional support for homeless and vulnerable people; and 5 Ways which offers guidance and advice to those recovering from addiction.
Opera North’s work with refugees and asylum seekers was recognised with the award of Theatre of Sanctuary status. Its continuing commitment to these groups is reflected in its 2019 partnership with BIASAN (Bradford Immigration and Asylum Seekers Support and Advice Network) and Conversation Club which provides English conversation drop-in for refugees and asylum seekers at Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds. The six partners’ members get a year’s access to a wealth of opera, music, live performance and workshops.