Making connections: How Golden Thread Gallery are bringing people together, with your support

A workshop participant makes a sunflower artwork

Belfast’s Golden Thread Gallery tell us how they’ve been helping local communities to connect and get creative, with the support of a grant from Art Fund.

Golden Thread Gallery was founded in Belfast in 1998, the year the Good Friday Agreement was signed. First established in what Liz Byrne, the gallery’s development and fundraising officer, calls “a real flashpoint, quite dangerous area at the time,” it started out as an artist-led project, but became increasingly community focused over the years.

Post-Covid, and in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the team’s priority became “the fact that diverse and minority populations have just been completely underserved here in Northern Ireland,” Byrne says. A series of pilot projects, including an award-winning newsletter and family workshops, “were fantastic in terms of learning about building those relationships,” Byrne says. However, the team couldn’t be as ambitious as they wished – until they secured a £48,600 Reimagine grant from Art Fund in December 2022.

Spread across two years, the funding has allowed Golden Thread to build on these projects, planning 48 new workshops with free materials, a new online gallery and 600 free art packs.

The results so far have been transformative. Katharine Paisley, outreach artist and gallery assistant at Golden Thread, has met babies born during Covid “who were terrified of strangers, wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t come over to you, wouldn't open their mouth, wouldn't smile, wouldn't ask for anything.” Over the course of the gallery’s Family Workshops, however, they “just came absolutely out of their shells,” she says.

For the women’s refugee and migrant groups the gallery works with, the workshops have been a form of release. “We had people who were dealing with horrific PTSD, with really awful trauma that they'd experienced, and some of them had never talked about it,” Paisley says. “And then they found that through art, they found it quite therapeutic and they talked about what they'd been through.”

Welcoming and accessible, from workshops to art packs

The funding has enabled the gallery’s team to develop an approach to workshops whereby the creative techniques being used are fully demonstrable, so there’s no language barrier to taking part. It's also helped them to provide intergenerational community workshops that are open to all.

The team have also expanded the newsletter they supply as part of an art pack for refugees new to Belfast. Designed to unpick the complexity of Northern Ireland for individuals fleeing conflict in their own countries, the guide also tackles local food, iconic landmarks and top tips for living in the city – like being sure to always carry an umbrella. Part of the funding was earmarked so that the text could be translated into Arabic and Farsi for the first time. Often given to child refugees living in hotels and with very few possessions, the packs include a pencil case full of art materials and a colouring book.

Spending time together

Perhaps the biggest difference the Reimagine grant has made is in supporting truly collaborative work with participants. “I think long-term funding also allows you to actually co-create,” Paisley says. “It allows you to actually consult people and realise how you're going to work with them and how you're going to achieve what they want.”

The response has been enthusiastic: “People want to tell you what they want,” Paisley says. “‘I want to learn this. I want to do that. I hate chalk, don't show it to me!’”

And yet, alongside this, Golden Thread have also recognised that powerful engagement can be as simple as providing free coffee, tea and biscuits. “It's funny the difference that makes in itself,” Paisley says, explaining that people are encouraged to simply come, relax and connect with others. Snacks and drinks are provided as part of the workshops too, as well as all the necessary materials, so that – other than getting to the gallery – there are no costs to take part. “I know it's a struggle to do, but keeping it free for all the participants has really, really encouraged people to keep coming.”

Ultimately, the impact of this programme of work has been so significant that it has informed the designs for Golden Thread Gallery’s new city centre venue. Opening later this year, it will include a large Community Hub, dedicated to workshops and community events.

It holds the possibility for even greater interaction and collaboration, something Byrne is hugely excited by: “The potential, I think, is enormous.”

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