The Dock is a flagship arts centre in the North West of Ireland offering the best of contemporary art, music and theatre. The Dock has three beautiful gallery spaces and an intimate performance space. It presents a year round programme of visual art,
performances, residencies and workshops and is augmented by arts education and outreach projects that provide people of all ages and interests the opportunities to engage in the contemporary arts. The Dock is a space for local arts groups and practitioners
to meet create and develop ideas. Like a library but for the arts.
Sarah Searson has been working at executive and senior management level in the arts and education sector for over 25 years. Her career history articulates her interests in advancing arts and cultural organisations and projects, leading organisations in
strategic development and ensuring their efficient operational management. Sarah joined The Dock as CEO and Creative Director in 2015, and over the last five years has been working to improve the organisational structure, artistic quality, visitor
and audience experience, and broadening the national and international reach and reputation of the organisation.
How has daily life in your Arts Centre been affected by the COVID-19 health crisis?
As I write this, we are in the second week of Level 5 restrictions, during which Cultural buildings cannot open. In response to these new restrictions we are programming online only. This is both is positive and problematic, as we are concerned about
connecting with our existing audience and staying relevant to them at this time. We are also excited about new audiences and widening our reach. In terms of managing change we are producing events for online consumption, which is time consuming and
heavy on resources. We are learning more about what we can do and how we can work effectively. We are getting more familiar about what is effective for the online space which is highly competitive and flooded with free content. Like always there is
a lot of work that is needed to support and engage with specific communities.
We had a busy summer, during which we upgraded the technical fit out of our theatre, were in a position to install a new exhibition and to open our galleries. We made a successful application to the Town and Villages Improvement Scheme, accelerated measures
through the Department of Rural Affairs, and we’re just about to install a temporary outdoor community meeting space, which had to be cancelled due to changes in safety levels. We also moved our performances outside to a covered market-yard. This
was really successful, booked out, and very well received by our community. The programme was for weekends of music in August and art films in September but it was cancelled into the third week. The work needed to develop this programme was similar
to that of a producing a festival. Preparation included event management plans, safety statements, liaison with Garda, fire and local authority and the offsite stakeholders. We were also managing two sites for COVID safety of musicians, staff, public
and contracted technicians. There are some events that have been rescheduled up to four times and that have been cancelled. In terms of programming, it’s been really challenging. I have programmed parts of our autumn season 2020 four times. Usually
at this time of year October or November I would have the exhibition and visual arts programme of 2021 confirmed and scheduled, the performance programme would be confirmed and booked to June 2021. However, I am currently re-programming for November
and December 2020.
What do you think about what Arts Centres might do into terms of “digital programming” in the future?
With developing the digital programme, particularly in the area of performance, I am concerned with legibility. That we focus on maintaining a meaningful connection to our audiences and community users. We need to retain our “Dockness” to connect with
our town and community.
Our work should be about what it is unique and special about the character of The Dock if it is to retain our connection with the people which we had worked so hard for over the last fifteen years. And yet the challenge is to do this digitally. I think
that there is enormous potential for sharing digital content through networked arts centres. Skills in curating and programming are going to be more and more important as the digital world of arts is swamped with fairly poor content.
Navigating audiences to quality material is made easier through trusted sources like arts centres. The area of box office as we used to understand it, is almost irrelevant, consumers of online media behave in a radically different way to a physical engagement.
From a venue perspective there is no house management. The box office role and function is about managing and collecting data and encouraging online engagement. There is a need for us to move away from the very crude idea of arts online as being “content”
and to think more closely about the art experience with the view to understanding how it will connect with communities.
Prior to the pandemic, did digital content play a role in your programme?
Yes, in the area of visual arts. The Dock with the support of the Arts Council has been producing five short films a year which documented our visual arts programme. This is very successful in terms of engaging audiences across Ireland. We had also developed
podcasts connected with the visual arts which has been great to revisit during the lockdown periods.
What sort of digital or socially-distant content have you presented during this time?
We have developed a number of very popular online activities for young people and families. Collective Producers was a project designed to help young people aged 14-19 years develop skills which connect them to their place and community. It supports
a wider understanding of visual culture through a variety of skills, such as design, photography, and graphic design, print, drawing, and 3D-modelling. We will be publishing a digital book of the work over the next few weeks.
2Km, 3 Locations Art Project is a three-stage project that has been developed for a wider audience during COVID-19. Open workshops/projects/tasks were posted on The Dock’s online social media platforms for young people and adults to take part in.
This involved the investigation of our 2km ratios for exercise, home settings and how we engage together at this time. The public responded through sketching, drawing, painting, writing, dictation, sound recording, video and photography.
Nature Nurture project: Over 55 young people in three age categories of 7-9, 10-14 and 15-18 years, responded to the theme Nature Nurture, thinking about the beauty of our natural world. The Dock created a virtual exhibition space for young artists
to show their artwork.
Link to exhibition (including virtual tour): http://www.thedock.ie/exhibitions/nature-nurture-virtual-exhibition
In theatre we commissioned and produced a new work for audiences of six; Knock me Down. This was an immersive work that ran three times a day over two days.
We have commissioned new radio plays, and work for Facebook (thedock.ie/events/radioplay)
The Dock developed a series of artists interviews, Speaking of Which, these were developed from visual arts commissions like Jackie McKenna, Jamie Cross, Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Gemma Browne, Eve O'Callaghan, Atoosa Pour Hosseini, Austin Ivers and Anne Marie Healy.
Whose Woods are These: A Festival of Trees is a new online festival which included
newly commissioned music, artists interviews and reading groups. This will take place in December 2020.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of creating initiatives or presenting work in this way?
We are reaching wider into the world and engaging greater numbers of people. This is an advantage. We are not limited by space. However we don’t have a sense of the quality of engagement. The disadvantage is obviously the lack of the physical; online
consumption has its barriers in terms of activating older audiences, and the close social experience we had been offering. We are looking forward to the summer months and presenting work outdoor again. In general we are excited about the challenges
we face, but also slightly overwhelmed. The work level is enormous. We are behaving now like a small media production company.
Have you learned any do’s and dont’s from what you’ve been doing during this time and will this inform what you do in the future?
I think the do’s and don’ts are venue specific. I am learning that we should think more about clustering events for the online space. Marketing a series of closely related events, like mini-festivals. I think this offers more traction for audiences.
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