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Smithdown Social Club closed in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, and they took the opportunity to introduce a new initiative for the Club. Having previously been a largely music industry ‘collective’ of bands, solo artists and all the supporting roles that make a performer survive and prosper, they pivoted to a digital platform. This enabled them to continue to deliver music to the community and provide musicians with a digital ‘gig’ opportunity to provide some income during lockdown.
“Musicians are a highly skilled asset in the community that were being told by government policy to ‘get a job’, which was an outrage.” So says Brenda Monahan, director, social entrepreneur and one of the driving forces behind the new Arts Hub. Brenda saw the need to also incorporate writers, visual artists and film makers into the Hub to create digital content and get artists and musicians networking and sharing their talents.
The Hub was able to access crucial funding through this digitalisation strategy. Brenda explained, “This funding from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport through the Culture Recovery Fund has played a major role in the continuity of the business and artistic programming covering art, music, literature, film and ‘MusicMinds’, a project dedicated to the mental health of musicians working in the music industry.”
Brenda continues, “The derelict state of our former venue caused us to also pivot locations and we now occupy the three stories at 455 Smithdown Road that provide the space for the Arts Hub operations. We turned the former post office on the high street into Gallery 455, which opened in June 2021, and here we exhibit highly acclaimed art from a diverse range of local artists.
“This idea stemmed from successful art exhibitions held at the former Naked Lunch Café, the first co-operative café on Smithdown Road, started by social entrepreneur and local visionary, Paul Tsanos, who is also a Director of the Arts Hub.
“Over the last 12 months, the Hub has collaborated with multiple creative artists and professionals. We successfully launched a poetry book, ‘Bridge Over Smithdown: A Collection of Poems’, and a short story book, ‘Smithdown Stories Near and Far’ for local writers. We also held two ‘Five to Film’ workshops with scriptwriter Paul Womack, where each participant developed a 5-minute film script and produced a short film each. These will all be launching this January.
“We have been approached by so many high calibre artists and have exhibited art by more than 25 artists, photographers and digital artists in four exhibitions since we opened in June. We look forward to having many more during 2022, including some exclusives.”
The Hub has also used social media, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to good effect in highlighting the funding attracted by Brenda and her work in making successful applications.
This all sounds like a smooth road to transition but the Arts Hub’s evolution has not been without its difficulties.
The relinquishment of the former Conservative Club building in October 2021 due to dereliction (it was formerly used as a venue for Smithdown Social’s music activities, including live gigs and community events) was a major blow to the cash flow potential of the business.
“The building wasn’t fit for purpose from the beginning and was badly in need of a refurb, but we rallied for a couple of years trying to make it work.” said Brenda. “We had huge support from the community and just prior to Covid we successfully attracted funding to fix the roof to help regenerate the venue, but this was lost and the funding we did receive was for repairs that were really not our responsibility.”
“Our focus come January 2021 was to create the gallery space as our front-facing entry into the Hub and develop the 1st and 2nd floors into space for artists to create content in various ways. The challenge ahead is now about creating a new profile in the community, raising the awareness of our wide–ranging support and collaborations and increasing art and book sales at Gallery 455 to help us on the road to being self-funded by the end of 2022.
“From the outset, our plans have been for the Arts Hub to be a focal and practical support for creative arts in the area. We knew that key to its success would partly be finding the right balance in terms of supporting everyone who needed it… i.e. those working/involved in art, music, literature, film and well-being through the MusicMinds programme.”
Looking forward, and with reference to the Gallery, Brenda, Paul, fellow director Ian Francis and the whole team are now busy assessing their Arts Hub programming for the new year in orderto keep providing an exciting array of creative arts projects with social impact that supports the creative arts community.
“We are all about being local, supportive and socially enterprising,” insists Brenda. “For example, within Gallery 455 we cover costs of photography for artwork to assist artists to produce prints and cards of their work to sell during their exhibition and to digitally place their work on our website once their exhibitions end.
Our goal is to help promote their work long term and not just for a 4–week exhibition. It’s a compassionate way of running a business, helping artists feel loved, treating them like a human as opposed to just a commodity.
Speaking about the exhibitions, Brenda added: “They are all fully inclusive…generally you will find a mix of multiple skill levels and developing artists when you attend one of our regular launch nights, which are also supported by a variety of local musicians. We also include live music as a backdrop at exhibitions to help visitors to have a welcoming feeling upon entering and eliminate feelings and barriers of social isolation that were so evident after lockdown,” explained Brenda.
Gallery 455 has become a valuable network for each artist on many levels in terms of ideas, which makes sense given the diversity of artists involved, which include e.g. digital artists, photographers, creative art using oils, watercolours, canvas, illustration, graphics, abstract art and wood carvings, with 24 different artists adorning the walls at the Gallery to date.
There is also a variety of community art initiatives that Gallery 455 is involved with, including upcoming projects with community artists delivering art classes that promote art for beginners and enabling self-development for experienced artists.
Brenda concludes: “2022 is going to allow us to showcase so many aspects of this wonderful Arts Hub’s incentives. Throughout the year we will also be developing opportunities for artists across the multiple genres we support to have an outlet and create and grow alongside the ethos of human values.”
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