Bringing down the barriers to families accessing the arts

Bringing down the barriers to families accessing the arts

6 unexpected learnings


by Sallyanne Flemons, Project Manager, North East Family Arts Network


‘…Often I leave such days thinking “That was mildly interesting”. On Wednesday I learnt new things.’ This was typical of the feedback we got after running our AFP funded event, Bringing Down the Barriers: Access and Inclusion for Every Family. The Zoom conference, held in April, gave members of the North East Family Arts Network the opportunity to listen to expert speakers and share knowledge on how to tackle barriers to families accessing culture, as well as learn how to effectively and collaboratively fundraise.


The 5-hour event was absolutely loaded with useful hints and tips all of which would be impossible to share in a short blog but there were certain learnings that, for me, really stood out, made me think twice and will inform my work from now on. 


Learning 1 – Nothing for us without us


When you are designing your offer for diverse families, don’t make assumptions about what they need; consult them at every stage. Consult them before you start. Consult them while you are putting the offer in place and consult them when the offer is up and running. Basically, make them co-producers. Never stop listening.


It’s easy for cash strapped, time poor arts organisations to miss this part and best guess what audiences need. We have good intentions but to stand the best chance of getting it right, we do need to hear directly about the lived experience.


Learning 2 – Don’t make your diverse offer a bolt on


Occasionally it’s OK to create a special space or experience for a particular audience so they can get the most from it. But it’s important that this doesn’t replace the need to make everything we do as accessible as possible all of the time. Just to give an example, one of our expert speakers now makes all their organisation’s literature in an Easy Read format, not just when an audience with additional needs is engaging but constantly, for everyone. 


Learning 3 – Collaborate with fundraising, but there’s a need for a lead


Collaborative fundraising can reap great rewards. Most funders adore partnerships as this ensures wheels aren’t reinvented and your project can reach further. But most of us know that writing by committee can result in a diluted message, take up too much of everyone’s time and really slow down progress. A great way round this is to appoint an individual from one of the partner organisations to lead on the bid and build into the budget a payment that covers the extra time they will put into it. That way, everyone still gets a chance to input but there’s someone who can project manage, ensuring the bid stays focused and on track.


Learning 4 – For autistic people, try a sensory key


Many of us who have considered access for autistic people will already know about providing social stories/visual guides for this audience to see before they visit, but have you thought about a sensory key? One of our speakers who collaborated with a group of autistic young people and our region’s National Autistic Society found sensory challenges were a big barrier and that providing advance information about what to expect, for example, in terms of light, sound and noise in every part of the building, was hugely helpful.


Learning 5 – Why Poverty Proofing matters


Sadly, in the UK, the poverty problem isn’t going away. Far from it. In Newcastle, where I’m based, a shocking 39% of school pupils are classified as living in poverty. The effects this has on the experience of accessing culture are numerous and way beyond the most obvious barrier of ticket pricing. It creates many reasons why our offer might be completely avoided. 


Funding allowing, The North East Family Arts Network is working with a group of other cultural organisations to learn from Poverty Proofing experts Children North East, and the families themselves (see Learning 1), how such barriers can be brought down. There’s more about Poverty Proofing in my blog on the Audience Agencies Learning Diaries page.


Learning 6 – You’re doing good


In one of the workshops, everyone was asked to add to a Jamboard (essentially virtual Post Its) examples of what their organisation had already achieved to diversify the audiences they are working with and to improve access. We were blown away by what has been done and, while we all want to keep getting better, our sector is way ahead of many others on this front. Let’s recognise this, celebrate it and use it as motivation to keep moving forward with energy and enthusiasm.



Big thanks to AFP for funding Bringing Down the Barriers: Access and Inclusion For Every Family and the speakers who provided the above wisdom: Luke Bramhall, Children North East; David Jones, Life Science Centre; Vicky Sturrs, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art; Kerrie Highcock, North East Autism Society; Martin Wilson, TIN Arts and Helen Jenkins, 117 Consulting.


Keep up to date with Family Arts Network Sunderland on Twitter at @familyarts1 or @FANSunderland


The Bringing Down the Barriers event logo