Over this unusual year, Arts Project Australia Director Sue Roff has taken running an arts organisation during a pandemic into her stride. In this Q & A, she articulates her approach to dealing with an unordinary set of circumstances and summarises APA’s aim to confidently support its artists through virtual and flexible delivery modes. Roff reflects on the challenges and lessons of creatively negotiating changes to the studio and gallery to ensure their functionality, while also musing on the collective grit exhibited by the organisation that will be taken into the future, whatever it may hold.
How has Arts Project Australia responded to COVID-19, and what have been some of the lessons learned?
Sue Roff: Our closure started a week earlier than most as we waited for the results of one artist’s COVID-19 test (it was negative). By then, restrictions were in place, and we began to implement a remote program to enable artists to develop their art practice at home. The gallery started presenting exhibitions online, together with artist stories and interviews.
We have proudly kept all staff in work and continued to deliver services throughout the different stages of the pandemic. After developing a COVID-19 plan and instituting new hygiene and social distancing protocols, we slowly started to invite artists back to the studio – particularly those who were unable to join the remote program. Due to current restrictions, the number of artists attending the studio each day is capped at ten until further notice, and the gallery remains closed but operating at a high level online.
Lessons learned along the way:
Good communication is vital. The external environment is highly dynamic – sometimes changing every day. It has been crucial to keep staff and artists informed and how it may affect our work. Regular online staff meetings and written communications have been so important in keeping us together, and better understanding the pandemic’s impact.
There is always a way to do things better. We are learning to change the way we do everything very quickly.
The Arts Project team is extraordinary in the face of adversity. Our well-developed culture of support and care has been at the forefront of our ability to continue.
How has the studio adapted and continued to support its artists?
Sue Roff: Creative staff means creative solutions to problems. The APA studio responded quickly by delivering art materials to artists’ homes, helping artists and their families use Zoom, and then delivering group and individual art sessions online. Challenges included a lack of technology and WIFI access for some artists, and the disinclination of some carers and house staff to assist in this access. But there have been many more highlights: some incredible artwork created at home, artists gathering in small groups maintaining a sense of community and our staff getting to know the families and carers of our artists better.
What are the benefits of moving the gallery online for the rest of the year?
Sue Roff: Recognising social distancing protocols will be in place for some time, bringing artists back to the studio is our top priority. We’ve resolved to turn our gallery space into a second studio, while the gallery will grow in its capacity for external opportunities and partnerships.
COVID-19 has allowed us to grow our digital presence – something we didn’t have time for in the past. The gallery team moved efficiently to present weekly online exhibitions, interviews and stories. Unable to hold our annual fundraising dinner, our long-term partner, Leonard Joel, conducted an online auction – which culminated in $47,000 of sales, of which 50% went to participating artists. We think this will become a new addition in our annual calendar! The past four months have shown that online infrastructure allows showcasing of more artists and more work- translating into excellent sales, opportunities for artists in Australia and overseas and the reaching of new audiences.
We don’t have much insight into the future right now. Instead of asking about your hopes for the next 12 months, what is APA’s mantra to approaching them?
Sue Roff: Whatever we do and however we do it, we will continue to remain true to our mission – to support artists with intellectual disabilities, promote their work and advocate for their inclusion in the broader contemporary art sector. We now know this can be done remotely, as well as in person. While we hope to be working with more of our artists face-to-face as time goes on, we will continue to do so safely and endeavour to manage health and safety risks in the best way possible.
As our manifesto says – we march to the beat of our own drum and map our own future.
And we are determined to have a future!