Our experience at Watershed during the last few months has echoed how it has been for many of you: it is hard, sad and bewildering but also uplifting and hopeful. We think it has brought us all closer, across our teams and with you, our audiences and partners. The kindness and generosity that is frequently articulated in so many ways (messages, donations, offers of help and encouragement) have really kept us all going.
It’s been a challenge over this period to get our teams to take a break, they have been working flat out in spite of the difficult and challenging circumstances (including every Watershed staff member taking a salary sacrifice) and so we have implemented a mandatory week’s holiday for all staff who are still working.
This is partly for the practical purpose that we cannot carry everyone’s holiday allowance later into the year, but it is also mainly to ensure that we give everyone the opportunity to take a proper break before we re-open - which we are excited to say will be on Tue 1 Sept.
So during the first week of August you won’t be hearing too much from us – but we’ll be back well rested and raring to go on Mon 10 Aug. In the meantime we asked Clare Reddington, our CEO, to reflect on what these last few months have been like…
In the last few months I have been to A LOT of meetings where we all start by listing our misery, the facts and figures that a paint a picture of how bad things are. I get up in the morning and dread these meetings – but accept that it’s important to bear witness, to give an account of what is in danger, to advocate for support. But this is of course just one part of the Covid story – there is also innovation, new ways of working and staff working tirelessly to keep things going in difficult times.
So before we head off on a week’s break – which we have asked all Watershed staff members to take in order to be ready for re-opening – I thought I’d share a bit of what we have been up to - the challenging AND the hopeful.
When we closed in March 2020, Watershed was doing extremely well – we had the best cinema and trading month ever in Feb 2020, our projects were delivering across the world, and our staff numbers reflected the booming business in our building. Sadly the sector’s change in fortunes has meant we have had to run a painful redundancy process, which will mean saying goodbye to 35 team members, which is deeply sad. Looking ahead, things are likely to remain tough – social distancing and reduced capacity means we are forecasting a drop in income of around £1.5M between September 2020 and March 2021, which will result in substantial losses. Whilst the Government’s culture bailout is extremely welcome, it needs to support a lot of organisations, so can’t be counted on to completely mitigate this.
Nevertheless, the energy and dedication of the Watershed team members who have continued to work means that we have continued to support artists, audiences and other organisations whilst working from home. Here’s a few of the things our teams have been supporting…
BFI NETWORK South West is currently funding eight Short Film Productions and six Early Development Projects including Crossing Worlds by Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann and 3 Minutes of Silence by Ben Price. The Pervasive Media Studio team continues to support 164 residents remotely and have hosted 12 Lunchtime Talks online covering everything from Afrofuturism, to the 100 Year History of the Video Call, to Homeless Lockdown Diaries and Wicked Problems. These take place every Friday at 1pm.
Our Micro and Midi Residencies programme which has been running for a number of years, specifically supports artists from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds to develop their practice. Our latest Residency kicked off in June, supporting artist Libita Sibungu to consider the use of creative technologies within her practice which explores the politics of the body and landscape, in relation to migration, blackness, and colonialism.
Our five Rife content creators have been responding to recent global and local events, for example, Lucy Turner produced a beautiful illustrated tool kit to help you through lockdown and Keziah and Qezz documented and spoke to young people at the Black Lives Matter protests about their experiences of the historic moment for Bristol. And Rife have produced this phenomenal collaborative documentary of the lockdown experience in Bristol.
Operational teams are also extremely busy on the re-opening plans and risk assessments which currently stand at over 100 pages. It has been useful to watch how others have opened their businesses in the last few weeks and we are looking forward to sharing with you our plans – including some welcome videos which will re-familiarise you with the building we all love.
Of course it is not just us that is suffering - the cultural sector in Bristol is very vulnerable right now and its future is very uncertain. From large venues to nightclubs to small businesses, artists and freelancers – creativity and artistic innovation characterises the city – it is what draws businesses here, makes its independent spirit, contributes to wealth and delivers social impact. The whole ecology needs support to enable it to thrive again, and its vital we work collaboratively on the new solutions we will need.
Are there glimmers of hope or things that are going well? I think a reinvention of the balance sheet is well overdue – I am pleased we can take this opportunity (when money and audience attendance - the usual go to measure of value - are not the most useful) to better articulate how inclusion and sustainability could be used as measures of a thriving business. I am delighted that Bristol and Bath Creative R&D are developing research strands around this very subject.
I am excited by the hybrid digital and physical models we are beginning to invent – Watershed has a new online conferencing service. We were also one of the founding partners of Bristol Arts Channel which bought together over 60 organisations to launch a city-wide online arts offer on just £15,000. We can’t roll back from the new forms of access that this time has given people who couldn’t or wouldn’t access cultural provision in the city. I welcome this challenge and hope culture will be more inclusive because of it.
Alongside others we will keep bearing witness to our challenges - our worries about how to make the books balance now and also around the decimation of our reserves. How will we protect the behaviour that sums up the Watershed spirit? Taking risks where others wouldn’t, begining things before knowing how they might pay, helping others get started without the need of return. We are determind to find ways to nurture and sustain these ways of working, but it will be tough.
We will also continue to celebrate the great stuff we are doing. We pledge to keep collaborating and searching for new ways to do things – working with our audiences and artists and the rest of the sector to get this thing done. We know we will get some things wrong, we pledge to be open, transparent and kind.
And on behalf of all of the Watershed team, thank you for your continued support and encouragement – we can’t wait to welcome you back – but for now we are all going to lie down for a week.