Friday, 18 December 2020
How we marked our 40th year: a journey through Unity’s 2020
The end of any year makes you naturally reflective. In 2020, it feels even more apt for Unity to take a moment to pause and consider the journey undertaken.
The year commenced with a social media campaign launched at one-minute past midnight on the 1st of January. This campaign – complete with a New Year’s Eve style countdown, firework animations, a celebratory video of the past four decades and a list of Unity’s ten commitments for the year ahead – spoke of a landmark 40th anniversary year. We had no idea what was to come, nor that the phrase “marking our 40th anniversary” would remain on our to-do lists until this very moment.
As the pandemic took hold in March and we closed our doors, the very real possibility of a more permanent closure meant it didn’t feel like quite the right time to celebrate the past four decades, nor did we truthfully know what to say. Then, after the murder of George Floyd in June that sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, it felt like any reflection we did, as an arts organisation committed to an inclusive society, should look not to reminisce, but instead toward the present and the future changes we could make to create a fairer, more supportive world.
From that moment we prioritised not only surviving the financial hardships of a pandemic but creating a new strategy that embeds care even deeper into its core.
As we’ve now reached middle age indulge us in an opportunity to take you on Unity’s journey through 2020, and finally cross “marking our 40th anniversary” off our to-do-list.
This blog explores the themes that have followed us throughout the year – respond, support, learn, create, purpose and gratitude. – These terms act as jumping off points to discussing Unity’s difficult and defining moments. They also allow us to look beyond the year end at what changes we will take forward into 2021.
After all, we hear that 41 is the new 40
“Speak to people rather than speak for them”
When something uncommon or unexpected occurs, the instinct to respond quickly kicks in. On the week beginning the 16th March, like many other venues, we issued a statement of closure. Just two days later we released a second statement announcing our plans for online activity. At Unity we wanted to reassure absolutely everyone that we hadn’t forgotten them. We also wanted to do all of this not just quickly, but as appropriately as possible.
But after this initial rush to pull together an online offer and publicise it, we questioned if anybody actually wanted this. We needed to establish who the communities we were best placed to serve were, what they required and how we could help. Very quickly we determined Unity’s community to be artists.
Traditionally Unity has prided itself on the fact that the opportunities we offer artists are always formed in consultation with both working artists and those trying to work in the sector. As such, it felt only right that our response should be created with them. To achieve this, we set up two focus groups on Zoom in early April that came about following an open call to artists to join us in a consultation.
On reflection we possibly entered these sessions with a preconception of what we assumed artists would say they need – financial support and a platform to be creative. As the presentation of our support flowed into conversation the artists on the Zoom focussed upon how they could support one another’s creativity and mental health. It is, perhaps, one of the most defining moments of our year, as we sat back and watched these artists speak of their desire to support and learn from each other. It was from this that our summer Artist Support Programme was born…
In May we launched Building a Future, a new events programme responding to the immediate needs of artists throughout lockdown. At the heart of all activity in this programme was the opportunity for artists to learn from and support each other, and for Unity to give back to them.
The programme’s stand-out event was No One Way, a series of online interviews with inspirational industry professionals sharing their career journeys to date, designed to debunk myths of what the stereotypical ‘arts professional’ looks like. The series presented honest stories of the struggles and successes of working in the arts from diverse voices. Crucially, the sessions offered early-career artists the chance to access practical information on schemes that could advance their career and hear from people that didn’t just reflect a certain kind of person.
These sessions started in the same week that saw the impact of the pandemic on the sector first hit the national press, including an articulate appearance from playwright James Graham on Question Time. Given what we now know followed in October around suggestions that those in the arts should “retrain”, the impact of these talks from our No One Way guests in providing early-career artists with much needed advice, resource and optimism cannot be understated. We’re grateful to the marvellous speakers who took part in this series which is still available to access here.
“Solutions come from talking to each other”
Our lockdown support programme was created as an opportunity for artists to learn from fellow artists, but what we hadn’t predicted was just how much those conversations and presentations would shape our future plans.
Take the No One Way session with writer, performer and co-founder of Tourettershero, Jess Thom. Amongst many memorable moments from this talk, one point that really struck a chord with us was Jess’s observation that, for many disabled artists, shielding and being unable to work in a physical performance space was nothing new and will continue to be their norm long after the industry ‘returns to normal’.
It is our responsibility to ensure that Unity output is available to anyone who should require it – it may not be for everyone, but it could be for anyone. The pandemic has fast tracked ambitions around accessibility. As the year progressed and plans for a future became clearer, using Jess’ word as inspiration we took the unique opportunity to rebuild with accessibility at the centre, making sure we reach more artists and audiences than before. Improvements to our digital platform have already been made, commissions for D/deaf or disabled artists to create new work from home are already live, existing partnerships with D/deaf and disabled companies continue and new partnerships are being formed. As we programme 2021 there will also be more BSL, Relaxed and Captioned performances than ever before.
Our learning continued in a memorable No One Way event with Scottee where those on the Zoom shared a question, problem or idea they would like answering. From there, everybody else in the session worked together to help answer that question.
From kitchens, living rooms and offices spread out across the North West, Scottee’s notion of ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ poignantly pointed out the strength in our pandemic induced redefinition of working relationships. Defined job roles disappeared as we had to find a way to keep Unity afloat. Both struggles and skills were shared and a belief emerged that we had the solutions to challenges available within the team as management turned mentorship, a language change that continues in our new strategy.
As autumn approached, a potential reopening began to look likely. Though unable to confirm the return of a public performance programme, we were able to announce a phased reopening for artist support and community engagement – Space to Create.
The programme handed Unity over to creatives to for free rehearsal and development space. We offered up all that we had to enable local artists to create work that they could exploit in a suitable platform now, or to be prepared for when venues reopened for performances.
Between September to December, we have safely welcomed over 150 individual, local artists and companies to rehearse, record, write scripts, plot lighting, interview participants, workshop ideas and develop new work. Some of these artists were known to us before, others were new and came through the open application process. Their artforms include theatre, spoken word, comedy, physical theatre, family activity, music, dance and immersive theatre. We have also used our space for community workshops including the Homotopia Youth Theatre, All Things Considered’s new project development, interviews for Amina Atiq’s new experimental film capturing the stories of Yemini newsagents and Fabiola Santana’s exploration of grief.
Outside of the venue we continued to support artists to create work through co-commissions as part of Blackfest, Homotopia and Culture Liverpool’s Without Walls Programme with Whispered Tales. Our online programme continued with a new interview series called What Now? – offering a glimpse into the work of fifteen Liverpool-based creatives throughout the pandemic.
Finally, autumn saw the launch of Creative’pool – a new talent development programme kindly supported by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, annually providing over 200 artists of all backgrounds with the training, networks, skills and resource to build a sustainable career in the creative arts.
Preparing the next wave of Merseyside-based artists and producers to share their talent with the city and the world, the programme includes £5 tickets across the Unity programme, free-to-access masterclasses and workshops, free space and support for artists to develop, record and stream their work, a year-long producer course with two weekend-residencies run by national experts and a brand-new role for an Associate Producer.
“Our purpose is to support an accessible and supportive society – that is what we yearn for, cherish and strive toward above all else.”
Unity is made up of many component parts. But, if we were to pin down one thing we really learnt to articulate this year, it would be that our purpose, above all else, is to support an accessible and supportive society. This must be embedded in all of our considerations, including opportunity, communication, recruitment, programming and producing talent.
This renewed purpose can be illustrated through the recently announced Open Call Programme. The programme is, first and foremost, an opportunity for artists to come back stronger through guaranteed income streams and creative outlets. However, Open Call is more than just a chance to get money into the pockets of Liverpool artists. It is a statement of Unity’s vision and purpose – that Unity isn’t a reflection of an individual staff member’s artistic taste but is an open opportunity for representation of the diverse and contemporary stories being told across Liverpool in all manner of high-quality creative forms.
The very nature of the word open is that anybody can apply, but we must work hard to ensure that our services can be accessed by anyone, practically and confidently. By adding a £150 payment to artists for the time it takes for them to develop their application, we hope this may allow more people to get involved. Including an additional £3000 commission for shielding artists means we aren’t limiting the call out to those able to create work in venues or out in communities. Offering technical, producing and marketing support means those less able to access these skills will not be at a disadvantage. Using language that isn’t specific to the industry, or that requires an understanding of how programming deals or budgets work, removes the need for previous formal experience in the sector. Finally using new communication platforms and partners to share the Open Call opportunity means hopefully reaching artists who may be new to the venue.
“It is hard to comment on any of it without feeling an immense sense of gratitude toward those who helped make it possible.”
Though 2020 hasn’t been the landmark 40th anniversary “extravaganza” we intended, it will have been one of the most formative. As our reflection concludes, an feeling an immense sense of gratitude endures.
We thank the artists of Liverpool who have helped form so much of our thinking this year. We have been continually blown away support of us and your fellow creatives.
We’d also like to thank our core funders, in particular Arts Council England and Liverpool City Council. You have not only provided us with crucial emergency funds and advances, but also offered up personal support staff and artists.
We thank the staff at Unity, those that sadly left the team and those that remain. For the efforts required to generate such an impactful and responsive output whilst continuing to weather the uncertainties experienced by the sector we stand in admiration. The same thanks extend to our Board of Trustees who provided unprecedented levels of support. We are indebted to you for your wisdom in steering Unity through the pandemic.
Finally, we’d like to thank our audiences. We were awe struck by the outpouring of love for Unity that was shown when we first announced our temporary closure. Since that point you have kindly donated ticket costs, made individual donations, displayed incredible patience as we completed a refund process and reached out to ask how else they could help.
Thank you so much for all your support, not just the past 12 months but the past four decades. We really hope to see you in 2021.
With love and kindness,
This blog was created using highlights from a zoom conversation in which Unity team members reflected personally and professionally upon the year.Back