Resilience of the South Hill Arts Center during the pandemic


Over the past 18 months, a lot can be said about the devastating effects of the pandemic on the arts industry around the world. Theaters were told to close on a few hours’ notice, cast and performers were left with no income, and arts centers across the country were relentlessly shocked by what was happening.

Bracknell’s South Hill Park found itself in this situation in March 2020. After nearly 50 years of operating as a national charity, they had entered a situation where, as an artistic venue, they had failed. were never found before.

Overnight, performances stopped, music and art classes were canceled, and the lights went out on the stage at the Wilde Theater.

South Hill Park General Manager Craig Titley spoke to me saying:

“Like all arts organizations in the UK, when we were told we were due to close in mid-March of last year, that meant over 80% of our revenue stopped overnight because that we are an arts center where we have people attending in person.

“At the time, we had to cancel everything, which was a huge task, as with all sites. We had to reschedule and at the time we thought a little naively that we would be open again in the fall or spring.

With 65 of the 70 employees on leave, Craig told me the number one priority was to make sure the arts center was always on people’s minds when they were sitting at home, working, or are on leave.

“It started out as sorting through the bookings and then looking at what we were going to do financially, as it costs $ 1.2 million a year to run South Hill Park before we schedule any arts.

“We had the same spending levels as our income fell. ”

“We could see other sites were shutting down permanently within a few weeks, so it was a matter of protecting this building and planning as much as possible, given the information we had.”

The biggest investors in South Hill Park and its arts hub have always been Bracknell City Council and Bracknell Forestry Council. As owners of the estate and their 2 main stakeholders, they are proud of the work South Hill Park creates for the local community as a charity and have kindly continued their fundraising even though they were closed.

As a service provider, their main challenge was how to continue providing some kind of service to local residents without buildings.

Titley explained, “Most of the planning that I do is one year, 18 months, even 2 years in advance and all of a sudden we found ourselves in a situation where we had nothing. So like a lot of places, we had to think about how we might move some of our business online.

Credit: Jayne Naylor

Throughout the many blockages, the South Hill Park Arts Center created initiatives that created a new sense of community for local residents.

“We had something called ‘On Your Doorstep’ where we would invite people from the local community to film themselves, sing, dance or do a magic trick and we shared that on social media.”

Podcasts were created, focusing on local artists and broadcasting interviews with them.

“It was hugely different, but we were providing something, and as we stepped into the New Year, we started a ‘Home Singing’, which was our virtual choir. There were about 300 people who participated and you could only sing for an hour, but know that you were doing it with a group of other people.

Throughout the pandemic and particularly as the lockdown began in March 2020, South Hill Park administrators met daily to support Craig and the management team as things changed on a daily basis.

Craig commends the local parish councils of Bracknell, Winkfield and Crowthorne for their contribution, to ensure they were able to open safely. This included putting in place risk assessments and Covid measures on the site as visitors started to return.

In June 2020, South Hill Park launched its fundraising campaign. With funds exhausted and the cultural revival fund far removed, they had no idea of ​​the answer. Over the next year their expectations were blown out of the water, raising a total of £ 120.00 through donations from people in the community alone.

Craig said, “We know South Hill Park is loved locally and we know people are passionate about it. I would say more than a lot of other places.

“There seems to be a real sense of belonging with South Hill Park in the local community. But we were asking people to give us money and we didn’t know how people would react.

“At the end there was a real feeling of; we cannot afford to lose our arts center, and they were willing to contribute.

“In the end, people really got together to contribute. I think the idea that it could shut down and be permanently barricaded was a definite no-no to a lot of people.

At the time, the appeal was launched with a video of Kenneth Branagh who, as one of their patrons, has a long family history with South Hill Park.

Throughout the pandemic, people for miles around have also planned and scheduled fundraisers where they could for the arts center. For example, a local parish councilor known locally for creating an annual calendar to raise money for a charity decided that South Hill Park was the charity he wanted to work with last year.

Bracknell News:

“In July 2020, artists and bands across the region who couldn’t perform unless they had an online platform began to come forward. People were going back to the park grounds, which a lot of people do over the summer, and the musicians and artists we are willing to play to help our campaign.

Depending on the location, the fundraising campaign has made more people aware that South Hill Park is a charitable, non-profit service provider.

They said that as time passes and funding levels decline, the arts center will always count on the continued support of the local community in order to continue to deliver the exceptional program they have had for 50 years.

Tilbert said: “We may not have had this opportunity, without the covid, to really cry out about the charitable status of the organization.”

Thinking back to March 2020, it’s so easy to think about the negativity the past 18 months have brought. However, for South Hill Park it was an opportunity to think in a different way and shift their thinking process to what kind of place they want to become in the future.

To accommodate people who are isolated and working from home, some of the classes run by the arts center have moved online and now continue to do so.

Craig said: This is something we have never thought of before and especially accommodation for people with access needs who would like to come here but think they cannot come here due to transport or that they have mobility problems.

“The more we can do, the more these people can participate in an artistic activity in their own homes.

“We’re not just an arts center, we believe the arts can transform lives. We believe it is the arts, if you participate in it builds confidence, opens up horizons and improves people’s skills in what they can do. It nurtures talent and we do it through the arts. ”

From the start, South Hill Park was committed to protecting the arts center for the future and seized every opportunity to ensure the survival of the charity. This included arts council nominations, expense minimization, and fundraising campaigns, which kept the entire art center running surprisingly well.

Craig said:

“I’m really glad we didn’t have to lay off and we didn’t have to cut anyone’s pay during this time. This is unfortunately not the case for other sites. Everyone works very hard to make sure that we are able to deliver what we do every day.

“As an arts center, we’ve been there to support the local community in many ways, but we’re going to do a lot more, focusing on health and wellness and how the arts can support various organizations. charities and organizations in our community by working alongside them. . We have strengthened our “Participation in Learning and Community Engagement” team because strategically this is important to us. Whether it is mental health, physical health, socio-economic groups, children or retirees.

“From 2022 we are planning a lot more of this activity where we use the center and the arts to support individual groups and improve their lives, even if they only have one experience.”

With casual performances and screenings available for every production, now everyone has the opportunity at South Hill Park to experience the arts in the atmosphere of their choice.

Craig tells me about their relaxed panto performances this year, saying, “It’s a safe space where if you get up and dance because you have a hard time sitting down or are a little vocal, no one will judge you. We had a lot of families for the panto this Christmas and we had a lot of feedback.

Bracknell News:

“There was a young boy who was very scared just in the environment of being at the theater and the family was worried he would not attend. One of the ugly sisters came downstairs spoke to him, reassured him, put him at ease and it went from one of life’s most terrifying experiences to absolutely loving him at the end. of representation.

“It’s these anecdotal stories that remind all of us why we are here and why we want to do more to just improve people’s lives.”

As the Association’s CEO, Craig is passionate about how the association and the local community work together to create and share so many rewarding experiences. He said:

“I have worked in the arts for over 30 years and worked in beautiful old theaters, but there is something very special about South Hill Park.

“Compared to many places in the country, the diversity and range of what we offer, from cinema, comedy to the cellar, the multiple specialists in visual arts courses and the exhibitions we present make the want a lot of places and we’ve been doing it for almost 50 years now, so I think people just wanted to make sure we could get into the next 50 in a good position.

With things not 100% back to normal, the arts center predicts that everything will be fully operational in 6 months with performances and screenings returning to their original capacity. The Wilde Theater is already sold out and shows, with a full program booked until 2023.


About Mary Moser

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