Museum stories: How Impressions Gallery are taking art outside  


Over the last few weeks we’ve been hearing from some of the museums we’ve been able to support so far, and we hope you’ve been enjoying their stories.

Today Anne McNeill, director of Impressions Gallery in Bradford, tells us about their brilliant ‘OPEN OUT’ project, supported by Art Fund, which will see them take four photography exhibitions outside to the city streets over the course of a year.

As well as popping up in shop windows and outdoor locations (once lockdown is lifted), the exhibitions can be enjoyed online. The first virtual exhibition, Being Inbetween by Carolyn Mendelsohn, is online now.

Anne also tells us how they’ve been keeping people engaged with art, and what they’re looking forward to when the gallery can reopen.

By donating to #TogetherForMuseums, you’re helping many more museums and galleries across the UK make projects like these a reality. Thank you.

‘We closed our doors before 23 March. I remember I said to the staff team, “Don’t worry, it’ll be six weeks max.” And then there was total lockdown.

We had planned to do an outdoor event with our young people’s collective, New Focus, launching a film. I thought, what are we going to do? I know, let’s do it digitally. We had no idea what we were doing. We laugh at how digitally naïve we were. We put it out through Twitter, which was really good, but now we’re doing international conferences and Zooms with online launches using our very own YouTube channel.

I absolutely love digital because we can reach international audiences and get international speakers without having to fly them over. We’ve seen the possibilities, so it will definitely become part of our programme. But I always put this caveat in – nothing will ever replicate the real-life experience, seeing artwork in the flesh.’

Virtual gallery experience of Being Inbetween by Carolyn Mendelsohn, Impressions Gallery

‘It was really hard at the beginning of March because Impressions is a really big social space for our local audience. For some, it’s a second home. On a Saturday, a lot of young families would go to the library [next door] and then wander into our gallery. They’d spend all afternoon.

We regularly used to do ‘Time for Tea’, which were socials inside the gallery for older people. Our visitor services manager spent a long time reaching out to them because they’re at risk of social seclusion and loneliness. They’re not digitally savvy, so we designed and made a newspaper just for them and sent it out with a teabag in it, explaining how to go on Zoom. We had a special Time for Tea online. It was lovely. I was even the bingo caller.

[The young people’s collective] New Focus worked really hard to get people to send in their photographs, their memories, and turned that into a film [‘Bradford Family Archives’, with funding from Bradford Council]. The thing I’m really proud of is that they did reach local audiences. A lot of them were older south Asian women, who were shielding. Through their grandchildren, New Focus managed to tease those stories out.’

Being Inbetween by Carolyn Mendelsohn, Impressions Gallery

‘We reopened from September to the first week of November, but our visitor figures were really low. Bradford was getting a lot of national press about being high-risk, so people weren’t travelling into the city. But Thursday mornings were reserved for people who thought they might be vulnerable. That was good – we got a few people in that way.

That was one of the reasons why we came up with the idea of [outside] capsule exhibitions. Our audience survey during the first lockdown [showed] people’s cautiousness about going into buildings. We’re working on the assumption that when lockdown eases, that’s when we’ll open. If people still have a residue of cautiousness, they will be able to see artwork to a standard that we normally deliver in the gallery, outside.

The owner of a listed building in the town centre said that we could use his windows. It’s a beautiful building, on a really busy corner, and just opposite there’s a monument called Speaker’s Corner, so we’re going to do impromptu talks there about the work.

It’s a year-long project. If there’s an appetite for it, or if we reach people who’d never think about coming into the gallery, we’ll look for funds and carry it on. I’m always optimistic.

When lockdown lifts, we’re going to have a celebratory day. On the side of our gallery there’s one of those BBC Big Screens, and we’ll put up all the projects that New Focus did during lockdown. That will tie in with the capsule exhibition because the building we’ve been given is just round the corner. We can say, come and see the first of our outdoor street galleries and what was made during lockdown. It’s all outdoors. Bring a picnic!’

Explore Impressions Gallery.

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