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May Leadership Guest Blog: Pragmatism in a Pandemic - Deirdre Robb

15 May 2020

May Leadership Guest Blog: Pragmatism in a Pandemic - Deirdre Robb

Our first guest blog, as part of our May Leadership Series, comes from Deirdre Robb, CEO of Belfast Exposed. Deirdre has a wealth of experience working within the arts sector, with previous roles in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council, Arts for All, Trace Fine Art Gallery, Engine Room Gallery and Creative Exchange. Deirdre is also an established installationist and sculptor, and has exhibited throughout Ireland, Britain, Europe and the United States.
Early Awareness and Pre-Planning
When Coronavirus hit the headlines in January, I felt for sure (as many others did) that this disease was coming our way. 
Ironically, on 23rd January Belfast Exposed were launching the exhibition ‘Inside Out’, which was an exchange programme with Ulster University and Luxum Academy in Shenyang, Belfast’s sister city in China. 
On the opening night, the headline news announced Northern Ireland’s first suspected COVID-19 case; as it turned out, the individual in question had a hangover! Nonetheless, we had to take a deep breath, as some audience members voiced fears about coming to the show ‘just in case’, as there were some Chinese delegates attending that evening. 
Disappointing as this was, ultimately it was a great exhibition (if I do say so myself) with a large audience and several great reviews, and over time things soon settled down. But it did prompt the need early on to discuss audiences’ fears and the ‘what if’ scenarios for Belfast Exposed, should coronavirus reach our side of the world. 
These discussions took me back to the leadership training I received last year, which had steered me through scenario planning exercises such as this- it occurred to me then, that what seemed like a paper exercise at the time, was indeed becoming a reality. 
Getting the Fundamentals Right
From that point, the virus became a regular feature of our weekly team meetings, discussing what work we could do whilst maintaining our strategic vision, and also simultaneously seizing every opportunity available to us.  
We looked at the essentials that Belfast Exposed needed to maintain: our commitment to artists, working with the community, pre-paid training programmes as well as our usual wish list.  Working remotely online and digitally had become our only option, but we knew we could make it work. 
As an addition to these essentials, we had lots of experience working with young people, but a key area for development was working with families and children.  We had also identified a growth opportunity just ahead of the pandemic, to see if we could deliver training programmes online- a concept we have discussed for the past two years.  I believe, it was this planning that gave us an edge, as within a week of lockdown we had our first downloadable digital activity. 
By realising early on that schools were likely to close, we planned the ‘BX Daily Activities’ as a free online resource for parents to download, supporting them through the enjoyable plight of keeping their children entertained.  We have since added other public digital programmes such as the ongoing ‘Home Life’ project, seeking images from the public, portraying their life from home, with the intention of preserving these submissions for our archive and future exhibitions. 

 Taking Risks /‘To furlough, or not to furlough?’
On 17th March, the virus had already been named Covid-19, and I decided it was time to close the gallery doors; waiting for Government guidelines was not realistic and it was just not worth taking the risk for staff, our team of volunteers or the public. This was the day where working from home became the norm. 
This also was the time to make the decision of whether to keep on staff or furlough. I had not even heard the term furlough until now, and I had to balance what was best for the organisation in the short, medium and long term, as well as considering the needs of my staff. 
I also had key freelance staff that I viewed as a core aspect of Belfast Exposed. Our money may not pay a full wage, but nonetheless, these freelancers now relied on this income more than ever, as the majority of the other regular income had ceased. 
I had a projected budget, but that had to change repeatedly throughout the course of March and April in line with what the news and government guidelines told us. In early May, it was time to set a programme and budget that could be adapted along the way. 
Looking at finances it was going to be tight (and still is). Funders have been really supportive and flexible, however, a third of our budget is generated through earned income. Was this the time to take risks? In reality, as an arts organisation we are never in a position to confirm at the start of the financial year if we have enough money to pay all the bills, and in that regard, this year is no different. Belfast Exposed like everyone else will have to do what we can to survive, budget accordingly and deeply monitor as we go along. 

Making it Work
As it turns out, all staff (including freelancers) has been retained during this period, and I believe wholeheartedly this has been the right approach for us. In fact, as many in the cultural sector have experienced, we are working harder than ever! We’ve been developing new content and products through seed fund support from Arts & Business NI and focusing the team on researching additional training programmes that may not make us much money now, however, they will make Belfast Exposed fitter, stronger and more sustainable in the long-term.  
In a selfish way, this work has been a salvation for all staff (including myself) as it has helped keep us sane, and supported our mental health and well-being by keeping us busy, whilst we have adapted to the confinements of being isolated and quarantined in our homes.  Dare I say, there has been a renewed energy with new focuses and fresh thinking, and it has created the environment for reflection, allowing a different kind of dynamic to drive the organisation, boosted with adrenaline when we discover new ways to make it work! 
Since I joined the organisation almost 2 years ago, I have taken risks alongside my board of trustees and amazing team. We have transformed Belfast Exposed’s programme, galleries and our engagement, ultimately doubling our audiences in a year by developing and refining specialised programmes. This has not been all plain sailing; in fact there have been many aspects that have not worked, but they are outweighed by many more achievements, and we have grown in a business capacity as an arts organisation.  In many ways I adopted the same approach to Covid-19, with an attitude that is open for change, adapt to circumstances, take risks, learn through success and failure, and reflect on the outcomes.  
Relationships and the Art of Conversation
All the planning in the world could not have prepared me for the whirlwind of deciding how to communicate best. What to do next and with who? What are we allowed to do, and what are the restrictions for the long term? 

The world of Zoom has been become key to those communications, and is now used for team meetings, developing networks, mentoring and training. At first it was revolutionary, as I was able to engage face-to-face and quickly build UK networks with some of the leading photography organisations. We have supported one another through this crisis whilst also exploring collaborative projects for the future. At a point, communications did take over for a while, with entire days filled with Zoom meetings. I have now struck a balance in my weekly schedule; the key to that is linking with the team twice weekly, ensuring that they are safe and well, motivated and productive. 
Adapting and Learning
Our training and community programmes online appeared to be the perfect solution to remote working. As time progressed however, we discovered that this does not take into consideration digital inequalities, especially in rural communities, or the many older people not as comfortable and familiar with new technologies, whether they have access or not.  This became a particularly important consideration in the delivery of our socially engaged and community programmes. As a result, we turned to low-tech solutions such as the telephone and email. It has been the humble telephone conversations that has enabled us to work comprehensively with those in isolation and has become so vital, with the art of conversation being just as important as the artwork they produce.  
The Future
I have regularly been asked if I think this will change the way we work in the future. I suppose there are some obvious working ways which will change, for example online and digital delivery will definitely remain a big feature. Six months ago, my priority was to grow the creative team, now it's digital marketing. 
Rather than focusing on just footfall, it’s clear that building relationships with audiences and participants is likely to have a more in-depth experiential feel, to give a longer lasting impression.  
The less obvious and biggest change is going to be reflection. In a nutshell, what Belfast Exposed has effectively done is took a really hard look at itself, what we do and how we deliver it. Yes, we have adapted and changed to suit the challenges of the pandemic, while still delivering and being visible; but it is the space that has given us time to examine our work in a meaningful way, and ability to try new and innovative projects, whilst moving away from those that don’t serve the same purpose. ‘Time out’ is going to be a feature of the future- making for in-depth reflection- and it will be key in our business plan to be relevant, innovative and resilient. 
On a final note, I am really proud of how the arts sector in Northern Ireland have shone through this adversity. Collectively we have rose to the top, carrying on regardless and finding new ways of working.  Whilst not true in all cases, to date not everyone understood the need to invest in the arts. Yet it is the arts that has been a key mechanism that the public have turned to, using creativity to inspire, inform and entertain as well as supporting their health and well-being. It has been the arts’ time to shine and has hopefully changed some hearts and minds.  

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Arts & Business is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.