Cork: Taking a creative approach to keep audiences engaged with the arts

Cork: Taking a creative approach to keep audiences engaged with the arts

The pandemic may have closed the doors of galleries and theatres, but centres such as Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery have used the time to reach new audiences with more advanced online offerings

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19th June, 2021

When Crawford Art Gallery reopened five weeks ago, Mary McCarthy, its director, had several concerns: the financial impact of Covid-19, the uncertainty around future lockdowns and question marks over the return of the corporate market.

“But to be honest, a lot of the worry was not just economical,” McCarthy said. “When we got the notice that we could open, we were a bit worried ‘will people come back?’ and ‘will they come back quite quickly?’

“We were really heartened that they did, and that people have been really glad to be back and that it’s remained very busy.”

In fact, visitor numbers to the gallery, situated in the heart of Cork city centre, are not too far off where they’d usually be this time of year, with up to 750 art-lovers entering the gallery daily.

“We’re about 30 per cent off what our normal numbers would be and that’s amazing considering we’ve no international tourists for this time of year,” McCarthy said.

Like so many cultural spaces, the Crawford, as it’s affectionately known in the city, shut its doors in March 2020, in the first of a series of lockdowns, the most recent of which lasted five months.

But gratifyingly, much of the work precipitated by those periods of closure has gone on to reap rewards for the gallery, which is now open seven days a week, with free admission and no booking required.

“We used the time of closure to do a lot of work on the collection, making it more accessible to the public online,” McCarthy said.

“We moved online, creating engaging programmes and putting more focus and time into Instagram and other platforms, and we think that has immediately garnered a younger audience’s attention.”

Since reopening, she’s been aware of a younger audience profile now entering the gallery. “We think that a new audience has found us,” McCarthy said.

“The period of pandemic for us, as a gallery, definitely expedited certain things. We invented a virtual Crawford tour, which was something we’d looked at before, but thought ‘do I want to replace the actual visit?’.

“Now all the research is showing that if people are familiar with the building before they come in, then they feel more confident coming in the door.”

The increased online presence has also given the gallery a global reach, with expats emailing their appreciation at how being able to walk the Crawford’s halls, or tune into their online weekly stories, has helped them feel a much-needed connection with home, and even allowed them to introduce their children to the artworks.

The doors might have been closed, but the past year has also marked an exciting period of expansion for Crawford Art Gallery. In October 2020, Catherine Martin, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, announced a €1 million fund awarded to the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Crawford Art Gallery to enhance the collection and support Irish artists.

Crawford received €400,000 of that fund, something McCarthy describes as “a significant and really important boost for us”.

“We were able to spend quite a few months researching where the gaps were in our collection and looking at artists we wanted to purchase,” she said.

“Then, we had a very rigorous process of assessment across ourselves, the Irish Museum of Modern Art and other curators nationally, to buy a good spread of art works.”

“You could easily spend that money three times over, because the talent out there is phenomenal. There’s a very high level of visual art output at all ages working in Ireland.”

Some of those new additions to the National Collection will go on display in July, with ‘New Threads’ showcasing more than 20 new publicly owned works including artworks from Stephen Brandes, Tom Climent, Elizabeth Cope, Rita Duffy and more.

There’s currently a specially commissioned photography exhibition by Dara McGrath running at the gallery, as well as a body of work created by Doug Fishbone that delivers a thought-provoking look at the housing crisis, the Zurich Portrait Prize and ‘Menagerie’ which focuses on animals in the collection.

“We felt animals were important to people in lockdown, so we put together an exhibition that’s very playful and fun and gets people to make their own connection with the work,” McCarthy said.

“We think there’s something for everyone of all ages, whether you want something thoughtful, something provoking or whether you just want to walk through and see some familiars.”

She paid tribute to the government’s response in protecting the arts through a difficult time. Moving forward there’s interest in operating more late night openings to capitalise on Cork’s growing night-time economy and on-street dining.

Most of all, however, McCarthy is glad to have Crawford filled with the sound of people again.

“We missed the joy of people, the sound of the public, the interaction with our audiences, that opportunity for discovery and shared experiences,” she said. “The works were still on the walls but without the public it was very strange.”

Breathing life back into live performances

Barry McGovern was performing in Beckett’s Watt, directed by Tom Creed, when the Everyman shut its doors back in March 2020.

“It was devastating, frightening, but we naively thought we’d be open again in three weeks, so the impact took a while to sink in!” Sophie Motley, artistic director, said.

Instead, it will be September this year before the Everyman can hope to reopen its doors and welcome audiences back into the beautiful 650-seat auditorium for live stage performances.

However, if the mantra of the theatre is ‘the show must go on’, then never has that been more true than during the adversities presented by the past year.

Thanks to support from the Arts Council and the wage subsidy scheme, the Everyman has been able to retain all staff and, since October 2020, they’ve presented an engaging and varied online programme that’s been enthusiastically supported by both a local and international audience.

There have been creative attempts to maintain artist engagement. “We’ve set up online groups, coffee mornings and employed over 300 artists on digital work, which is a feat, although not the same as connecting in person,” Motley said.

Without being able to invite audiences in, they’ve had to look at fresh ways to reach out, and this summer will mark a first, with the Everyman presenting several outdoor events in Elizabeth Fort supported by Cork City Council.

“We hope this experiment will work and can be continued in future,” Motley said. “We’ll also have more digital performances as we’ve learned that it means people who aren’t able to get to the theatre can still see the work.”

First and foremost has been ensuring the building is ready to receive its public again, from investing capital funding in upgrading toilet facilities to creating a safe, Covid-compliant environment.

“This is why we’re taking our time this summer and not opening just because we can,” Motley said.

Long term, she feels the financial impact of Covid will potentially necessitate smaller, “although no less ambitious” productions for the theatre. With the return of actors to the stage, however, Motley can feel the building starting to stir.

“It’s alive at the moment, you can feel it breathe,” she smiled. “We have To The Lighthouse in, our co-production with Hatch Theatre and you can feel the building sigh and smile.”

“I was privileged to be in a rehearsal last week and it made me cry immediately. It’s why we do it, why we’ve worked so hard this past year.”

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