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A Poetic City: Programme Review

A Poetic City
Comics at RWA

Written by Melanie Kelly

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The programme marking the 250th anniversary of the death of Thomas Chatterton has officially ended, but many of the resources and collaborations that have been developed will continue to be of value.

A team from South West Visitor Insights was appointed as the external evaluators for the reporting to National Lottery Heritage Fund, which had supported the programme with money raised by National Lottery players. The following insights come from the final report, which included additional data provided by programme leaders Bristol Ideas.

The Impact of Covid-19 on Evaluation

Like other projects across the cultural sector, A Poetic City had to be significantly revised as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The planned start of the programme coincided with the first national lockdown in March 2020, with only a few activities from the Lyra Poetry Festival being able to take place. Bristol Ideas had to quickly adapt to these operational challenges and revise how it would deliver this multi-faceted, multi-partner initiative and still achieve the programme’s aims, objectives and outcomes.

As such the evaluation framework similarly continued to adapt as the programme evolved. South West Visitor Insights could only assess what had been delivered up until December 2020, although activity has been extended into spring 2021. There was a switch to mainly online events with static content (including films, podcasts and online publications). This made gathering audience data difficult and, in some cases, impossible. However, surveys were completed by those who attended the ‘Death of Chatterton’ exhibition and related workshops, talk and tour for the visually impaired at the Royal West of England Academy (RWA); the event marking the handover to the new Bristol City Poet; Lyra’s Poets 4 the Planet; the Bristol Poetry Institute Annual Reading with Claudia Rankine; and a Festival of Ideas event with Rising Arts Agency on radical leadership. The main programme partners were also asked for feedback (Destination Bristol, Glenside Hospital Museum, Literature Works, Lyra, RWA and St Mary Redcliffe) as were the authors and other creatives commissioned to deliver work (including the writers in residence and comic-book author and illustrator).

Some Headline Figures

3,550 poetry anthologies and 9,000 comic books were distributed for free to sites across the city including libraries, museums, hospitals and places of learning (though Covid-19 restrictions have meant that most remain in their boxes and have yet to be passed on to members of the public)

25,000 people were reached by posts on the Poetic City Facebook page

581 people attended the live, in-person event with Poet Laureate Simon Armitage held at the Wills Memorial Building and hosted by Lyra (March 2020)

24 people joined guided walks in the footsteps of the Romantics in Bristol led by Ralph Pite (March 2020)

65 people attended the live, in-person event at Bristol Old Vic marking the handover to new City Poet Caleb Parkin and 71 joined a related online discussion later that day (September 2020)

36 people attended creative workshops (September-November 2020)

884 members of the public attended the Chatterton exhibition at RWA (most pre-booking a timed entry because of Covid=19 restrictions) (October 2020)

80 people attended poetry readings held at RWA (October 2020)

85 people attended a webinar on ‘The Death of Chatterton’ hosted by RWA (October 2020)

228 people attended the online event Poets 4 the Planet hosted by Lyra (October 2020)

825 people attended the online event with Claudia Rankine (November 2020)

93% of survey respondents stated that they were either ‘Very satisfied’ or ‘Fairly satisfied’ with the experience they had (RWA exhibition, Poets 4 the Planet, Claudia Rankine)

4.4 (out of 5) was the average agreement score for the statement ‘It is important that this painting is here in Bristol’ for the RWA exhibition, and 86% of survey respondents agreed that visiting the exhibition improved their wellbeing

100% of survey respondents stated that they were either ‘Very satisfied’ or ‘Fairly satisfied’ with the RWA creative workshop for young people they attended (none had heard of Chatterton before)

100% of survey respondents who attended either the radical leadership event or the City Poet handover ‘Strongly agreed’ or ‘Agreed’ that it had increased their feeling of local pride

100% of the respondents to the partner survey scored 5/5 for the question of how supported their organisation was by Bristol Ideas during their project

100% of the respondents to the creatives survey were either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied with their experience and all respondents stated that they would like to be involved in similar projects in the future

Photo Gallery: Audience at City Poet handover (Evan Dawson); Visitors with publications at RWA exhibition (Melanie Kelly); Claudia Rankine (JOhn Lucas).

Selected Audience Comments

‘A very uplifting experience.’

‘Reconnecting with the things that I used to do was good.’

‘Just lovely to get out and see something interesting with lots of information as well.’

‘I live in Exeter, so I find it inspiring to be so close to a vibrant city with an inspiring cultural life.’

‘I enjoyed it; it was surprisingly emotional and therapeutic. Two hours went by quickly!’

‘Thank you very much for an enjoyable and nourishing workshop.’

‘Awesome live event. Great to hear different perspectives and different ideas. Wonderful stuff!’

‘A smooth-running event, professionally put together, and no clutter. Enjoyable performances and discussion. Covid rules were enforced safely.’

‘Wonderfully inspiring and thought provoking! Please keep doing what you’re doing!’

Selected Partner Comments

‘We have developed new skills in creating and managing commissions and we have developed our skills in communication with other cultural/ historic/ bodies and organisations in Bristol.’

‘The Poetic City enabled us to continue to remain live and current during the pandemic. It enabled us to employ artists and deliver something fresh and relevant online.’

‘It was an unusual and much more intimate exhibition than we typically plan that has led to shifts in the way we think about our programming and respond to crises.’

‘The way [Bristol Ideas] brought multiple partners and organisations together, often to meet in the same room, was a real highlight. New connections were constantly encouraged, leading to successful collaborations.’

‘I was personally very touched to witness the enthusiastic engagement of the commissioned poets with the story of Chatterton and his painting at RWA and their readings in front of the painting. We felt honoured that such an iconic painting could be shown in Bristol, even in such reduced circumstances.’

‘As all our poems are about mental health and cover difficult subjects like suicide they are supportive of people struggling during these difficult times. We have worked with two, very different, wonderful poets! Thank you for introducing them to us. It has given us a template to work on for further online engagement.’

‘A Poetic City has helped us to build relationships with project partners and benefit from their insights on how the church can use its heritage to increase engagement, benefiting local people and organisations, including the church itself.’

Selected Creatives Comments

‘It was great to be included in an anthology with such a brilliant group of poets, all of whose approaches were so varied and well crafted.’

‘It was a wonderful commission for me, allowing me to write new work in response to Chatterton, who has been a really significant poet for me over the years.’

‘The whole thing was project-managed in a way that was proficient and personable. I’d [say it was] the best of its kind, in my experience.’

‘Feeling that our input was valuable enough for this kind of response was greatly appreciated and reflected really well on how the organisation works with artists.’

‘Improved my practice / changed my relationship to my work/ created new goals and ambitions / built new relationship with heritage organisations.’ 

‘A piece of work I am proud of. Continues my interest and personal development in prose writing, in comics, and comics + poetry. Makes a powerful statement re: the value of artistic expression unrestricted by circumstances of birth, class or income – the necessity of accessibility to the arts – then and now.’

‘This residency sustained me and creatively fed me through one of the most difficult years I have had as a freelancer artist. It opened up new conversations about my work. It reiterated for me the importance of interpretation of history from new perspectives and made me really look and reflect on what can be achieved through language podcasts and aural storytelling. It made me want to continue as an artist and it reminded me why we make things in a year where making things for audiences felt impossible.’

‘[Bristol Ideas] took a chance with me as my portfolio had no full-length comic work so this project is very valuable to me and I am very grateful to have been involved!’

Final Reflections from Bristol Ideas

Naomi Miller, Deputy Director of Bristol Ideas, who coordinated the overall programme and aspects of some of the individual projects, wrote the following:

‘This was a programme unlike any other. There wasn’t an element untouched by the pandemic. The UK lockdown was enforced in the days between the two weekends of Lyra’s poetry festival. Bristol Ideas’ first experience of Zoom was holding interviews for the writer and artist for the Chatterton comic at the beginning of March. We were never able to meet this team in person, as we would normally, which is hard for a creative collaboration. We only held one in-person meeting for partners before the projects started – we are happy to see the depth and variety of collaboration still able to take place, despite the lack of face-to-face contact. We were pleased to be able to honour all of the commitments to artists, adapting writer in residency programmes so that they could happen virtually, for example, at a time when most work for artists ground to a halt; and it was great to see the innovation of partners and projects as they revised their plans to new scenarios. Managing to hold the exhibition of Wallis’ painting at the RWA felt like a major achievement and a highlight of the year.

‘There were, of course, disappointments. Distribution of hard copy publications was severely limited with most venues closed and an understandable fear of picking up print materials. We hope that as the content is not time-limited – and is of such high quality – it will prove more valuable in the near future. It was disappointing not to have crowds of visitors discovering the Muniments Room at St Mary Redcliffe, especially with the new, carefully-designed interpretation, but we look forward to this being a legacy of the programme in the months to come. Despite the difficulties, the partners all remained optimistic and determined to see as much of the work realised as possible.’

A Poetic City was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Header photo: Distributing publications at RWA by Melanie Kelly.

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