Sunderland Family Arts Network
over the years

Sunderland Family Arts Network was set up in 2013, in response to the call from the national Family Arts Campaign to encourage arts and cultural organisations to come together to champion art and culture for families in their communities.

If you don’t know much about Sunderland; it’s a North Eastern coastal city, with a deep-rooted industrial heritage. Famous for glassmaking, ship-building and coal mining, before car manufacturing in recent years, the city has long been proud of its history and much of the heritage buildings in the area are legacies of these once thriving industries.

Football is also a big part of Sunderland’s identity. We have a team that has brought its supporters joy and despair (and the fame of a Netflix documentary) along with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of faith and hope that we will one day reign in the Premiership again …and squash our rivals – Newcastle United!

Art, however, is not something that the City has developed a reputation for, although it does have links with a few well-known names. L S Lowry used to holiday in Roker and the Museum and Winter Gardens has a permanent collection of his work – one of my favourite places to visit! Lewis Carroll is said to have been inspired by several landmarks in the Sunderland area for his most famous work, ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Music does play a big role in the city’s more recent history. Famous names include Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame, Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, Nadine Shah, and bands Field Music, The Futureheads, Frankie and the Heartstrings, and The Lake Poets.

When Creative Cohesion, a small independent arts charity, founded the Family Arts Network along with a wide range of other arts and cultural organisations, the aim was to increase visibility of the many family-friendly organisations in the local area and improve engagement.

Over the years, we’ve delivered some great collaborative events:

Test Drive allowed us to fund some brilliant opportunities, including allowing families to have a go at glass blowing and taking a youth group to a local theatre for the first time at no cost to themselves.

Fun Palaces gave us the inspiration to host a joint activity championing arts and STEM in our City Library and Arts Centre. Four of the Network members took part by hosting including ‘build a dinosaur’, bubble art, making wish jars, and learning about 3D printing with a live 3D printer.

Funding from the Family Arts Campaign and Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy has previously supported our Network members and local arts organisations and charities to take part in fundraising training workshops and training in working with older audiences and those with dementia.

The Family Arts Network also connected small independent organisations and charities with larger commercial venues, Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations and council-run facilities. The mix was broad and allowed organisations to develop new partnerships and working relationships with each other that may not have come about had the Network not existed!

The journey of the Network has sometimes been a challenging one, though. Some of our initial challenges included:

  • In early days, stakeholders had different expectations of what the purpose of the Network should be.
  • Collaboration proved challenging with little funding available and many organisations needing to prioritise their own operation and activities.
  • A lot of members were working with small teams, sometimes volunteers, and thus capacity was also an issue.
  • A two-year period also saw the combination of four previously separate organisations under one umbrella organisation, with some facilities closing. This affected our ability to plan or deliver while restructuring occurred.
  • Finally, the audience in our area is a tricky beast; some very engaged, many very dis-engaged, many with barriers to engagement that seemed impossible to surmount!

However, over the years it has always been agreed that the Network had great potential and the desire was there to keep up the effort of pushing forward.

Some of this may sound very familiar to other Networks, some of this may become familiar territory to those starting their Networks now, but even though there can be lots of challenges along the way, it is definitely worth persevering.

Speaking from some experience now, my opinions/advice/tips to anyone starting a new Network would be:

  • Be open, inclusive and encourage conversations – members found other connections and routes into different aspects of the broader arts sector in our city via the Network.
  • Keep things simple – we found capacity to deliver large projects was sometimes limited. Working with what we had and doing something as simple as joint-marketing was helpful.
  • Apply for that funding! – There were several opportunities that came up for the Network to apply for funding for activities, training or marketing. We were keen to do what we could and often securing an amount from one funding source would allow us to apply for funding elsewhere too.
  • Keep in touch – collaboration opportunities may be few and far between, but make an effort to keep in touch with other members so that when something does become possible it’s easier to take advantage.
  • Ask for help – whether it’s from other Network members, other Networks, or your wider community; people are generally always happy to have a chat or point you in the direction of resources if they can.
  • Invest in yourselves – some of the highlights of the Network’s history have been delivering valuable workshops for members and organisations to assist them in better serving their audiences. Particular highlights were a fundraising training day, and age / dementia-friendly training with input from experts in these areas to give attendees advice and inspiration for their own projects.
  • Finally; attend the Family Art Network Seminars and events – connecting with other Networks can be hugely inspiring, reassuring and keeping in touch with the fab team at the Family Arts Campaign is really important, especially when you hit challenging patches.

Good luck with your Network!


Other resources that might interest you

2 October 2020