BLOG 11th May 2022

A Platform to access the arts

This blog is a guest blog written by Holly Foskett. Holly is a lens-based artist who has worked in a range of roles throughout the creative sector over the past 6 years and has worked with a range of organisations, festivals and projects. She is passionate about making the arts welcoming and accessible for all and is currently a co-director with Platform Arts an artist led gallery and studio space located in East Belfast.

This series of guest blogs is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Image by Alan Lafferty.

I remember in secondary school the day I got the results from my A-level/AS- Levels and when a teacher said to me ‘Oh great, what university are you going to, to study ICT?’ I had to break the news to them that I wasn’t going to university and there was no way I was going to study ICT (information and communications technology). Yes, I knew that’s where all the top paid jobs were going to be, but I wanted to follow my passion for creative arts. People just didn’t understand it. I come from a working-class background so when I mentioned I wanted to study photography and get a job in the arts, people gave me a weird look. Still today, I see that same look from people when I tell them I work in the arts. Generally, people see the arts as just a hobby or for ‘fuddy duddies’ and for a while, at the start of my career and education in the sector, I felt like an outsider. Galleries can feel cold, theatres alien and museums unwelcoming for those who have never experienced the arts.

Studying photography, volunteering in art organisations and working in the Black Box for over 5 years helped me break down these barriers for myself and help to make the arts accessible and welcoming for all.

Currently, as a co-director for Platform Arts, we are committed to widening the access to contemporary art in Northern Ireland

Platform is an artist-led studio group and contemporary art gallery based in East Belfast. The role is to actively promote creative expression, presentation, and access to contemporary art practice through our Exhibition, Education and Studio Programmes. It has a number of studio spaces that are rented to artists of all practices in order to support their professional development and creativity.

During the dreaded year of 2020, Platform moved from Queen Street in the city centre to Unit 7-8 in Connswater Shopping Centre. People within the arts community must have thought we were mad- we wanted to move our contemporary artist-led gallery and studio spaces to a unit in a shopping centre. We chose the vacant unit because we saw the potential of having a contemporary arts gallery and studios within a commercial, non-traditional space. It was very exciting and brought the art world to people in a setting and environment they were used to and would feel comfortable visiting.

Since the first open night in April 2021, our visitor numbers have grown as lockdowns and restrictions eased but we also gained a new audience. We noticed the more we had our doors open, the more people would come in for a break from their retail shopping to experience something new. The centre management helped us create signage to be put outside the space and helped advertise our exhibitions on their social media platforms and TV screens within the centre. This let people know what Platform was, why we were there and also let them know the space was for them to enjoy as well.

We now have regulars who come in for chats, attend our opening nights and participate in activities from our programme. They love to tell us what pieces of work they like and ask more about the arts and what we have coming up in the next exhibition. It’s great to make these connections and break down the barriers that people have to accessing the arts. These people are locals to the area and many have said ‘I know nothing about art’, but it doesn’t matter as they are now one of the new sections of our audience. Many said they used to feel that art spaces weren’t for them and that they weren’t welcome. Art is for everyone to come and experience, and I think having the gallery within a shopping centre and bringing the arts to a space familiar to all has made it more accessible.

Our last proper exhibition in January got over 200 people through the doors. These people came in to talk about the work, how their day was going, who their favourite artist was and asked what our plans were for the future. Was it due to the content? Was it because people knew they were welcome in the space? Was it pure curiosity? Who knows! But knowing that people were engaged, experienced something different and actively went into this art space started to break down these barriers and made arts accessible for all.

It’s been amazing that we have been able to maintain and attract our usual ‘art going’ audience while also grabbing the interest of the retail shoppers within the working-class area of east Belfast. We plan on doing more workshops and artist talks as well as asking people from the area who regularly visit what they would like to see and what art means to them. We have started this already by asking children to come in to display their artwork in the windows of the space. We also collaborate with any events the Connswater have in the centre for occasions like Easter, Halloween and other holidays. We were also involved with the Rooftop Summer Recess at the Connswater Carpark as part of the East Side Arts Festival and had a huge community beach draw and a mini outdoor art exhibition.

After a little break for some maintenance work and fixing things behind the scenes, we were excited to reopen our doors in April for an exhibition with artist Susan Hughes. We can’t wait to welcome the long-time supporters of Platform since its creation in 2009, fellow art lovers and our new art discoverers who know us as ‘that art space in Connswater’.

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