One Year On….
23 March 2021
A Year of the Pandemic at Union Chapel
By Michael Chandler
Prior to the pandemic, Union Chapel had been developing a strategy to become a leading ethical arts centre for all - bringing together our reputation as a well-loved venue, our services for people experiencing crisis and our community programmes. As a result of the coronavirus, however, we are moving towards that goal at substantially greater speed – both out of desire, demand and out of necessity.
These last few weeks have been a sombre anniversary for all of us, as we mark a year since the Prime Minister made the statement that immediately led to us closing venues and the wider national lockdown. We saw it coming for a few days, if not weeks, before – but what we couldn’t possibly anticipate was that we wouldn’t be able to properly open to audiences since that first lockdown.
The last year has been one of extreme challenge and trauma for all of us. But it has proved to be a catalyst for us to achieve some amazing things and speed towards our longer-term strategy and aspirations. It has also emphasised the need for us to do more. The experiences of the last year, and the challenges we as a society will face in the years to come, have put this work front and centre.
At the time of that first seismic announcement, I had been in my post as the first CEO of the Union Chapel Project for just under six months. What followed was the most brutal few months in our organisation’s history. Our venue revenue represented 80% of the charity’s income. Without it, we faced insolvency by the end of 2020. To counter this, we worked extremely hard to pivot towards fundraising – crowdfunders, but also trusts, foundations, crisis funds, which made all of the activity outlined below possible.
But we, like many organisations, also had to say goodbye to several key staff from our Events Team, being unable to sustain furlough for them or our other events casual workers beyond January. This has been heart-breaking and incredibly difficult for all of us. Sadly, we still have a very challenging and uncertain few years ahead.
During this time, in spite of the challenges we’ve faced, we have also delivered some of the most vital, exciting and inspiring programmes I’ve had the privilege to be involved in.
We’ve been proud to support the hardest hit before this crisis, and have continued to do so throughout.
Prior to closing, we were already making moves towards the escalation of our crisis provision. When lockdown hit, we were hosting a winter night shelter, and we and our Margins Project team worked tirelessly with Islington Council to ensure all 15 guests were placed into safe hotel spaces. Early in March, we hosted the first meetings with what then became the UK’s only Homeless Taskforce, alongside the inspiring Museum of Homelessness, Streets Kitchen, Outside Project, Islington Council and others. We seriously explored if and how the wider building could be used as a hostel, though through sage advice from MOH and the NHS, we established that that wouldn’t be safe.
When the venue closed, we quickly opened up one of our spaces to become a Community Emergency Hub, working closely with the council, Trussell Trust, local foodbanks and other providers, receiving and redistributing donations to visitors in need, people in our communities and other charitable and community groups. Our staff volunteered with local charity Help on Your Doorstep to reach out, befriend and deliver provisions to isolated and vulnerable residents across the borough – from prescriptions to laptops. Our advice work moved to remote working, reaching out to over 150 people in just a few weeks.
Over the last year, we’ve seen a 60% increase in demand for our support; many people needing urgent advice and support with benefits, housing, finances, as well as mental health and befriending. And we know that things are only going to get harder for many people in our communities in the decade to come. The traumatic mental health legacy of this pandemic is becoming apparent. Unemployment and financial hardship will increase, funding for support services is likely to decrease. Prior to the pandemic, Islington was already one of the UK’s most divided boroughs, with substantial affluence alongside some of the poorest wards in the country.
We have a major role to play in the future: providing a safe space for all people to come together, reconnect, bridge gaps, debate, share experiences, and work out how we can jointly change things for the better of us all. This commitment to social justice and change is very much part of Union Chapel’s nonconformist history – the radical activists who founded the Union Chapel 200 years ago and the pioneers of modern democratic government in which freedom of speech is foundational.
Supporting our communities and social justice issues is more urgent now than ever.
This spring, we have been training a group of Community Leaders, people with lived experiences from our local community - using techniques called Legislative Theatre to produce a performance that highlights the issues they face. This will be performed and debated with a wider community audience, including activists and a panel of experts, councillors and policy-makers from Islington, to work out how we can change things for the better. I am incredibly excited about this programme – Union Chapel has always hosted wonderful groups informed by and for its members, and the Community Leaders programme symbolises greater involvement in our programmes and organisation, to mould it into what they need heading into the future.
2020 brought about a digital revolution at Union Chapel – making our events and activities more accessible to many for whom Union Chapel may not have been previously.
In the absence of live events and programmes, we pivoted our energies and focus towards substantially increasing our digital content. We revamped our website to make it a better platform for content; our Organ programme pivoted to online workshops; we brought in digital artists-in-residence who ran brilliant projects with our communities. We opened ‘YourStory’, an opportunity for people to share their experiences during the lockdowns. Through funding for our digital heritage programme, we have created inspiring films about our history and future, and a virtual tour. And we have also secured emergency funds to support with the maintenance of this major building.
Acknowledging the digital access barrier, we also produced creative activity and information packs, with our latest combining a range of creative activities from London-based artists and facilitators – from mandala drawing, drama, creative writing to graffiti – which are now being circulated through our community partners to people across North London in need. We intend to share all of the above at a physical exhibition at Union Chapel later in the year.
And whilst we weren’t able to operate as a venue for audiences, we were determined to still host some form of events. We are immensely proud of our role in live-streamed performances, hosting the UK’s first ticketed livestream gig with Laura Marling in June. We had been exploring more livestreamed and recorded shows prior to the pandemic, and knew how amazing the chapel looked on camera. When we were approached about the possibility of the event, we didn’t hesitate to say “yes.” It took a lot of work, procedures and processes to ensure all were safe, including complicated one-way systems around our 150-year-old building. Critically and publicly acclaimed, and financially successful, the approach has subsequently been happening at venues across the world.
Ric Salmon, co-founder of Driift has said: ‘Producing our first UK livestream at Union Chapel, for Laura Marling, was a high point for 2020. A stunning space – in person and on camera – and a visionary team who were supportive throughout, made a game-changing event, for us and the live music sector for 2020. It’s heavily informed the livestream landscape, and certainly was the genesis for Driift’s work in the sector, through which we have gone on to sell nearly 400,000 tickets, generating millions of pounds for artists, their crews, and the culture sector.’’
This has emboldened our commitment to filming at Union Chapel, and over the year we’ve been proud to host so many amazing acts and events – from interviews with the likes of Stephen Fry, Michaela Coel, Max Porter; Prince Harry and Patrick Hutchinson discussing racism following George Floyd’s death, as part of GQ Heroes; Arlo Parks, Che Lingo and Kojey Radical on Channel 4’s ground-breaking The Whole Truth; to Celeste, Sam Smith and even primetime Saturday night TV on Britain’s Got Talent.
Live-streaming and recorded content have substantially improved the accessibility of our events and workshops to many who would not have otherwise been able to come to performances and workshops at Union Chapel. For that reason they are here to stay, and we are now exploring hybrid events and providing a greater platform for upcoming performers in the months and years to come.
Supporting upcoming artists, however we can, is vital for our future and theirs.
Union Chapel’s community arts projects Culture Café and Ten Feet Away all moved online, with some socially distanced activities where possible helping us keep in touch with people who didn’t have digital access. This year we also built on our previous artist-in-residency and history as a space for artist development through several smaller digital artist projects and contributions to our printed creative packs for our community. The artists and their contributions have been diverse – from drama to contemporary art, creative writing to graffiti – with some wonderful results. We’ve also been proud to host projects from the likes of Company 3, the youth theatre company, and Accumulate, the arts school for people experiencing homelessness.
This has emboldened our commitment to emerging artists and talent, and we are now working on a more ambitious talent programme.
Partnerships are key to our future work
Over the last year, we’ve gotten to know many of our local organisations, charities and grassroots groups far better, and we are excited about continuing to work with them in closer partnerships. We’re also excited by the possibility of partnership opportunities with other local arts and community organisations, inviting more into our spaces, providing space for them to develop, provide programmes to the community, and possibly residences.
Prior to the pandemic, we regularly hosted LGBT Forum, Extinction Rebellion, our homegrown community-led arts groups, and many other social justice groups and events, and during the pandemic we were proud to play host to wonderful projects by Company 3, Accumulate and others. This is something that is also at the heart of our history and plans; we intend to provide space and support for developing arts groups to grow, build capacity and fully utilise the space and platform of Union Chapel. This will accelerate with the redevelopment of our Sunday School space into a Community Hub and incubator for upcoming practitioners, arts groups and social enterprises.
It has been inspiring and heartening to see other arts organisations taking similarly radical approaches to support their communities, artists to survive this year and think ahead to the future. Through conversations I’ve had with other arts organisations, people on the Culture Reset programme, charity leaders, and others – the consensus early on was that this was an opportunity to change things for the better. The challenge six months ago, as a friend commented, was to navigate that course, and work out early what that direction was, when ‘the house was still burning’. And of course now, as the smoke hopefully is clearing, it will be a challenge to stay motivated and focused when many of us are just exhausted.
We still have a number of unanswered and unanswerable questions for the years ahead. When will we be able to re-open as a venue, and how soon will we be seeing anywhere near ‘normal’ audiences? Pre-pandemic now feels like a long time ago - a different world. We can’t wait to get back to live events, with audiences as soon as it is safe to do so. We remain cautious, though, and are keeping a very close eye on the roadmap.
2021 is Union Chapel’s 30th anniversary as a charity and venue. And we hope to acknowledge that in some way, later in the year. Initially we are asking audiences and artists to share theiur favourite events at Union Chapel over the years. But in many respects, 2021 could be as challenging - if not more so - for many of us, as we try to adapt, change and survive in a year of continued uncertainty, let alone what the world will look like afterwards.
And yet, I am immensely proud of what we have achieved together so far, I'm inspired by the people I work with, and I’m motivated, galvanised and excited by the trajectory now find ourselves on. Being a leading ethical arts centre for all – one that brings culture, community, social justice and heritage together in union - is very much the future for Union Chapel, and I hope for other organisations too.
UNION CHAPEL – YEAR OF THE PANDEMIC – IN NUMBERS
- Over 600 people in need provided advice, support, food or befriending
- 574 people from the local community engaged in creative activities and resources
- Over 2,400 meals and 2,100 support packs given to people in need
- Over 1 million audiences seeing Union Chapel on screen