Thu 25 June 2020
Continuing our conversations with business leaders across Merseyside, we speak to FACT Liverpool Chief Executive Officer Dr Nicola Triscott, about first navigating and then preparing to emerge from lockdown.
You’ve been in situ for a relatively short time – this must feel like quite a stop/start introduction to a new city and institution for you. So, first of all, how are you?
I’ve been here a year. A year’s a long time – there’s so much to learn and take on board. I mean, I’ve worked in London for pretty much all my working life – other than a year living in the States – so coming to a new city and a new institution (my previous organisation I ran for 25 years), that’s a big learning curve. It has been brilliant, but it has been a long year because of the amount of stimulation I’ve had, all the people that I’ve met and all the ideas – and becoming a Liverpudlian!
Becoming a bit of a Liverpudlian?
I think I’m a born again Liverpudlian. That’s one thing I didn’t expect, coming up here. I knew I’d be passionate about FACT, I knew I’d love the city, but I didn’t know that I would get so passionate about the city and bang on about it so much and support it in the way that I do. I’d not thought about it, I guess, but it gets you, the city. Liverpool has particular histories, and deprivation, that make you quite angry on its behalf.
How did you and colleagues manage going into lockdown?
When you mention the stop/start – we haven’t really stopped. I certainly haven’t. About a third of the team are on furlough now. The other two-thirds have been as busy as ever, just moved to a different way of working. There’s been a lot of thinking about the staff’s wellbeing, communication, and what this situation means for artists and freelancers. All the connecting that needs to be done with other organisations in the city, with the council, and with our sector, planning an online programme, planning for reopening, and rethinking what this means for culture and the city.
There was a bit of a hiatus as we moved into lockdown, cancelling the exhibition opening [for And Say the Animal Responded?] and a European conference we were doing, paying all the artists and the casuals and the freelancers that we would have been working with, moving to homeworking, and getting used to Zoom conferencing. But that feels a long time ago now. Now we’re starting to think about reopening – when we do that and how we do that. It’s all been a bit of guesswork, because the guidance from government always feels late – and then really sudden. We do a lot of planning. Life is a constant “let’s re-budget and re-plan everything!”
Some people have said they’ve had time to pause and reflect during lockdown – did that not happen?
It did. And it’s important to build it in, even though we’re so busy. As we were doing the transition, we resisted the urge just to slam stuff online, which would have been pretty easy for us at FACT, because we wanted to think about what that online programme could be. It was an opportunity for us to develop an online programme in a significant way. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I came into the organisation, but there’s never been the time. To have a few weeks, months, to think about how we work with artists and audiences and communities online, or through different ways of working, has been really useful.
In what way?
We’re looking at how people are absorbing the programme – what’s going down well. We did a nice participatory commission with a young artist group called Keiken on Instagram and that’s been massively popular, particularly with our young audiences. What else? Bat Week was great! We’ve kept it all around our 2020 theme of The Living Planet, with podcasts and videos and live events and interactive digital projects. It’s been fun experimenting and seeing what works.
You touched on the ‘new’ exhibition… Has that been held over, will we get to see it finally?
The exhibition And Say the Animal Responded? focuses on the animal’s voice and thinks about what the non-human has to say to us if we paid attention. It feels a relevant theme, so, yeah, we’ll open it when we reopen the building. We’re doing some re-planning and re-curating so that it’s a safe experience for visitors – a one-way system through the galleries, taking out all the touch-based stuff: headphones and interactive computer games, all that stuff needs to come out… Fortunately, it’s very sound-based. The whole exhibition is sound-centred and we’re re-planning the installation to give people a good experience.
I imagine people are really ready for this exhibition, which now feels even more timely given the re-connection with nature some have experienced during lockdown.
We’ve seen that online. We did a new commission with Geoff Sample and Daniel Thorne, mixing Geoff’s samples of the dawn chorus with a musician, a sonic re-imagining of the dawn chorus. That was very popular. People are thinking more about nature in an urban context. I’m excited to open it. We’re going to go gently. It’s going to be a soft-opening, because I don’t want to make people feel they’re missing something, so we’ll run it for quite a long time. It’s going to be safe, and we’ll save any celebration of reopening the building until the autumn or when it’s definitely feeling safer for people.
What has your engagement been like during this time with colleagues across the city, and with audiences and artists/makers?
I talk a lot with other cultural organisations in the city. There’s a group that meets every week. We catch up about COVID and where we’re all at. I’m also part of a network with digital arts and film organisations in the North. There’s been a lot of chat! We’ve also kept in touch with our audiences online, and our learning team has been staying in touch with our community groups.
We have our over-60s Digital Ambassadors group, we have a Facebook group for parents and kids, and we have a new intergenerational project with artist Jack Tan starting, working with the over-60s and some of the teenagers. We’re also working with veterans in HMP Altcourse. We didn’t think it would be possible at all to work with them. They’re confined to their cells for about 23 hours a day now, and the prison got in touch with us and said “is there anything you can do with the guys that you were working with?”, so the artist that had been doing the project with them is working with them via letter writing – so old technologies as well as new technologies.
Tell us about FACT Together, which gave local creatives something to focus on.
When we were having a pause (after lockdown), it was clear that we serve our audiences and our communities, but also that we serve artists – they’re our life blood and the heart of our activities. We put resources online to help artists access and apply for funding, but we also allocated significant resources to set up a scheme for early career artists. We thought we’d focus on the North and open it out to as wide a range of art forms as possible. We set it up specifically for early career artists, not necessarily having any experience in creating digital work (because we’ve got the expertise to help them there), and enable a cohort of artists so that they can support each other as well as develop their practice and exhibit new projects online. So, there’s technical and curatorial support and peer support, as well as, you know, hard cash.
A peer group, once the money is gone, is essential, I think.
Talking to artists, the feeling that they’re part of something and that they’ve got goals has been really important during this time. It’s been chronically hard on young people, who’ve lost the most – lost their activities, lost their social lives – it’s been brutal on them.
Do you have an inkling of when you might return and open the doors again?
I’ve got a plan! You always need a plan, even if we have to rip it up again later. We’re not an entity separated from what’s going on ‘out there’, so I’m conscious that the city wants to open up, and develop a ‘without walls’ pavement café culture over the summer, and I feel it’s FACT’s responsibility to be part of that in a safe way. That’s one context. Another is that we share a building with Picturehouse (owned by Cineworld), who run the cinema screens – they’re going to open in July.
That’s a context that I have to respond to, because we work hard to make sure people know that FACT is a centre for film and art and creative technology – not just a cinema – so to have a cinema open in the building but not to have the art galleries open doesn’t sit comfortably with me. We’ll be present in the FACT building in July and then we’ll open our galleries in August, which allows us to see how the safety measures are working.
Any positive or practical takeaways that you think you’ll apply to working after all this is over?
There’s a lot that we can learn from this. An obvious one is our online programme and the different ways of working with people who are not able to get out and about, the possibilities that opens up for working with artists and audiences and participants; but also the potential to work and connect nationally and internationally in new ways. All this stuff was there before but we’ve had time to test it out now and see what’s really exciting. And, for me, even though I met loads of people when I first joined FACT, I’ve met new people via video conferencing and had different conversations and heard other perspectives.
All of this is enriching. But the precarity of artists and people in our communities has been brought home to me even more strongly than before, and how we address that as a cultural organisation in Liverpool. We’re going to go into a deep recession, and we need to think about what cultural organisations are for and whom they serve in terms of artists and creatives and our communities. It’s a tough time, but it’s positive to think about these things in a different way. It’s good to question what you’re doing.
This period has allowed some people to do this…
We’ve been fortunate at FACT that we’ve been able to keep about two thirds of the staff (maybe less than that now, as I’ve been gradually having to furlough more people) active within the organisation. The nice thing is that staff on furlough have chosen sometimes, as part of their professional development, to come back into meetings and workshops and start thinking about what this means for us as an organisation. We’ve been fortunate in our financial position to be able to do that.
As an institution, and as a sector, it’s the long term that concerns me. We can criticise the government in so many ways, but a lot of the schemes they rolled out have kept many people and institutions afloat. I know that people have fallen through that safety net and I’ve lobbied the DCMS about that (along with many others), but there has been a lot of support in the short term, but how that pans out in the long term really worries me.
Interview by Mike Pinnington, a writer and editor based in Liverpool. He is editor-in-chief of The Double Negative, an online platform for Arts Criticism & Cultural Commentary.