Like many other arts organisations around Britain, Portsmouth’s Aspex Gallery is adapting to the unparalleled new landscape that COVID-19 has shaped. S&C Founding Editor Tom Sykes discusses sustainability, new tech solutions and the changing role of art in the digital era with Vicky Chapter, Aspex’s Participation and Learning Manager, and local performance artist Chinasa Ezugha, who has worked extensively with the gallery.
Tom Sykes: Can I ask you how Seesaw [an online learning platform] has figured in Aspex’s activities since the lockdown began?
Vicky Chapter (VC): We teach the Discover and Explore Arts Award [an accredited qualification that demonstrates students’ creativity, communication and analysis skills] which is aimed more at younger people; ages 5 to 25 can study for it. We’re trialling Seesaw to deliver that now we can’t meet up in person. We’ve been able to transfer some of the things we were already doing physically into the digital realm.
It’s an interesting way of working remotely with children because it has all the internet safeguards built into it. Seesaw allows us to communicate directly with students, set them tasks and check their work. We can easily download the assignments when they’re ready and submit them to an accrediting body for assessment.
It’s a completely new thing for us that I wouldn’t have even thought about until the COVID-19 crisis happened.
How else have you as a gallery responded to the crisis? Are you running other activities during the lockdown and are you still open virtually?
VC: We’ve tried to keep as much of our regular activity going as possible. We’ve developed Aspex at Home, through which we’ve kept running our weekly Mini Makers preschool sessions and our Family Saturday workshops, albeit remotely. All the freelance artists that were employed on those projects have been retained to work virtually. Now they’re providing online tutorials and activities in the same time slots that the real-world activities would have taken place in.
We had to think a bit harder about moving Generate – our course for those with dementia – online. We’re now sending participants materials packs and keeping them informed via WhatsApp groups.
We’re continuing to work with artists remotely and it was convenient that, before the pandemic, our current crop of collaborators are digital artists. Now we’re doing a lot more social media about what they’ve been getting up to remotely.
What have they been getting up to?
VC: They work in virtual and augmented reality. They use Unreal [a 3-D creation tool] to create other worlds and avatars through motion capture technology.
And then we have our Ambassadors project involving the University of Portsmouth. Every summer we work with CCI [the university’s Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries] and take on students who support us on a big summer project. It’s a professional development programme in which we run a series of masterclasses all linked to Aspex’s aims and objectives. Our staff members lead sessions on, say, curating or gallery education, social media and marketing. We get some guest artists in, too, to talk about their work. We’ve been able to keep delivering those sessions online and now our ambassadors are very used to video calls!
Have any of these activities been helped or informed by Aspex’s partnership with PONToon [an Interreg 5a research project, co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund, that improves the employability skills of young local women]?
VC: Yes. At the start of PONToon we weren’t digitally competent at all as an organisation – I’m sure no one will mind me saying that! At one of the first meetings we had with PONToon, Prof Joan Farrer, the project leader, got out some Chromebooks and asked, ‘Have you considered working with these?’ Now, some years after that moment, I’m sitting here on a Chromebook and everything Aspex does is file shared on Google Drive. It’s only because of PONToon that we ever considered stuff like that.
The artists that we’ve been able to work with thanks to PONToon have made us look at contemporary art in a different way. Over the next few years, we want to commission more digital rather than physical exhibitions. The way Aspex works has changed permanently.
Chinasa Ezugha (CE): Keiken, who are artists in residence at Aspex, are exploring what a digital artist is and where the digital fits within the creative sector. They’ve demonstrated that the digital is not just about being a means to producing art but should be regarded as art in itself. That’s really interesting, I think.
VC: Keiken is a collective led by three women artists who fall within the age range that PONToon and Aspex are working with. They met at university and developed a collaborative practice. Last year they were part of an exhibition called Collaborate! at Jerwood Arts in London. Aspex supports emerging artists, so we are really excited to be working with Keiken at this stage in their career.
For that exhibition and since they have been creating cinematic virtual reality moving image work that links to Instagram and augmented reality filters. Aspex’s Collective Futures project came in here, as we worked with participants to develop these kinds of filters.
CE: Are they selling these filters as others would apps? I’m just thinking in terms of sustainability.
VC: The filters are available for free because Keiken make them as commissioned art works or through other funded projects.
CE: They’re working with Block Universe [a performance art festival]. I don’t think the festival was supposed to be online this year but that’s changed due to the lockdown. It’s intriguing to see that other artists who are not digitally-based as such are changing their approach so that they can perform or create online.
VC: Another consequence of the COVID situation is that Keiken are doing more teaching now. Although they’d done some work like this – mainly one-off talks and training sessions – before we worked with them, it was our Collective Futures project that gave them the chance to deliver an entire course. They really enjoyed doing it, especially conveying the more technical and skills-based side of how they work as artists. Training and teaching have opened up other opportunities in terms of their career sustainability as artists. They’ve realised there’s a lot of scope for working with organisations like ours.
When we fully come out of lockdown – whenever that might be – will Aspex retain some of these activities so that they become a permanent part of what you do?
VC: It doesn’t feel like these restrictions will go away anytime soon, at least not completely. While we’re working on the assumption that we might be open next month at some point, we’re not expecting to do any physical workshops until at least next year. Even when we can open and operate just as we were before the lockdown, I predict there will be less focus on the physical building and more on online platforms.
CE: I’m guessing that the Arts Council is also rewriting the criteria for NPOs [National Portfolio Organisations that receive public funding over 3-4 year periods] to encourage arts venues to be more digitally aware in terms of the accessibility of their programmes. Due to COVID, there’s new strategic regarding whether these operations have to be based in a building or whether they could exist online as much as possible.
VC: Going online would increase accessibility in terms of wider audiences being able to see the work that we do. You’re not asking people to travel to the building. I guess also that we could use our digital presence to connect with and build the trust of local community groups which in turn will encourage them to come to the building.
Have you faced any funding challenges since COVID-19 struck? Have you been able to get any financial support from the government, for example?
VC: It’s a bit of an unknown at the moment. The Arts Council has announced an emergency fund for NPOs specifically. We’ve applied for the scheme but we won’t know if we’ve been successful until the end of June. Annoyingly we weren’t eligible for any government grants due to the value of our building being too high. Unluckily, we were just over the threshold by only £5,000! That was annoying.
The Arts Council grant only covers a proportion of our income. Outside of that, we have to fundraise for our projects and exhibitions from trusts and foundations or from the National Lottery. We also rely on earned income through the gallery.
Grants are just so competitive now. Before the lockdown we’d been working on a lot of bids and there were ones we had just submitted. They’re no longer valid because funders have stopped all their mainstream grants in the wake of the virus and have instead devised emergency, COVID-related funding. We’re not in such a difficult position as other arts organisations, thankfully.
You haven’t had to make anyone redundant?
VC: We’ve furloughed three staff members short-term because they were managing our earned income streams such as our shop and our event hire service. But at this time we have no plans for redundancies.