Case study: Learning to pivot and finding new ways to engage with communities

Case study: Learning to pivot and finding new ways to engage with communities

By Rob Lawson, The Cultural Spring


Rob Lawson, Press Officer at The Cultural Spring takes us through how their team quickly pivoted their methods of delivery in response to Covid-19. Find out how they contributed to the improved wellbeing of participants, enhanced connections and also supported local artists and creative practitioners.  

Launched in 2013 and funded by Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places project, The Cultural Spring aims to increase participation in arts activity in Sunderland and South Tyneside. Its partners are University of Sunderland, the Customs House, Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust, Sangini, a women’s health organisation and The Cultural Spring Charity.

What we do: A 60 second story from The Cultural Spring

The need to pivot

Our engagement with our audiences has always involved artistic workshops delivered by local artists at community venues – as well as our large-scale events, Go and See visits and our Your Art Community Commissions that support grass-roots organisations with arts activity and leadership. When the Covid pandemic struck in early spring 2020, we had to dramatically rethink our delivery model as all face-to-face arts and cultural gatherings and activity stopped.

The Cultural Spring team quickly pivoted our methods of delivery to ensure our communities in Sunderland and South Tyneside still had access to excellent arts and cultural workshops and activity.

In re-engineering out delivery model, our aims were:

  • To continue our engagement with our communities and find new ways of doing so;
  • To work with appropriate partners to identify and work with people at particular risk of isolation during lockdowns;
  • To support artists and creative practitioners with valuable commissions during a particularly difficult time;
  • To help and support the local arts community and ecology;
  • To help local people continue to contribute to our decision making – Your Art community commissions, for instance.
  • To ensure our own team felt supported during a difficult few months, including maintaining regular communication.


Our target audience remained the Sunderland and South Tyneside communities we’ve been working with since the start of our Phase 3 (2020-2023). Further, working with chosen organisations such as local authorities, foodbanks, health organisations and housing companies/associations we wanted to particularly extend our reach to those who were isolated through ill health, disability or digital poverty/lack of internet access.

Process and Programme

The Cultural Spring team quickly realised the internet could give us a continued method of delivery, and within days of the first lockdown we launched our Staying Connected research and development commissions to test out different ways of working and ways to connect with our audiences.

These R&D commissions helped shape our next workshop programme. Through these workshops we enabled people to work through creative activities in their own homes with online support from artists. Thousands of craft packs were also commissioned, produced and delivered directly to people’s homes.

Additional funding was secured from both local councils and others to support those who were particularly isolated, or at risk of being so.

Our online offerings and delivered art packs enabled us to reach and support greater numbers of people with disabilities and others, who for various reasons, were not able to leave their homes e.g. mental health anxieties or care responsibilities.

A total of 13 digital workshop programmes were developed and delivered between November 2020 and July 2021:

  • Writing bootcamp (YouTube sessions)
  • Card making
  • Folking Around the World (singing focused workshops)
  • Winter Writers
  • Summer Writers
  • Christmas cards
  • Christmas street gallery (festive artworks)
  • Winter Lights: Installations for your home
  • Introduction to poetry
  • Awesome Artists
  • Adult songwriting sessions
  • Animal face/pen portraits
  • Introduction to podcasting

We then realised that while our online activities were proving popular and effective, not everyone in our communities had internet access. So we then commissioned – again with support from local authorities – artists to deliver non-digital projects. These included:

  • Wish You Were Here postcard project;
  • We Make Culture – Singing Your Stories and Front Street Songs. Former was a project combining singing and letter writing groups and the latter was a socially-distanced music performance project aimed at families with young children;
  • Letter writing and musical collage teleconferencing was tried but proved too difficult and now the artists involved are delivering the project in person;
  • Postal art workshops – fortnightly sessions exploring chosen themes. Work created was collected and made into a book for participants.

We also adapted our popular Your Art Community Commissions to specifically target local groups who had been particularly hit by Covid or were in danger of being isolated. We also expanded the support on offer by the appointment of Community Connectors who are working with those chosen by the team and our Community Champions to benefit from the scheme.

Despite the pandemic, we also continued with our important community R&D opportunities – selecting and delivering five diverse projects:

  • The Super Human Art project – which involved art materials being posted to participants with disabilities who were asked to create self-portraits of themselves as super heroes;
  • Craft packs and online tutorials;
  • An Adventure for Lives Less Ordinary – part epic poem, part song, part spoken word and part Zoom celebration of Sunderland;. This R&D project developed into visual arts workshops, specifically with participants from Sunderland Deaf Centre.
  • Theatre Space North East – delivering a range of online theatre skills;
  • Lockdown writing – an archive of writing, videos, recordings and photos from the Lockdowns.

Additional projects included supporting Sangini to deliver a series of online workshops for women including asylum seekers and refugees, and a commission for an artist and illustrator (Liz Million) to create a book about life during lockdown in Sunderland village Ryhope, in partnership with the people of Ryhope and Ryhope Community Centre.

Getting the word out

Two women stand either side of an open car boot. The boot is full of boxes and parcels and they are surrounded by even more.

We continued to promote our activities so ensure people were aware of what we were doing. We used traditional media – newspapers and radio – as well as increasing our output and engagement on social media. We engaged the services of an experienced social media expert to help raise our profile – and the profile of our digital and non-digital offerings. Our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts became more important to us – and more popular with our communities.

We even used Facebook Live to deliver a story-telling project to families with young children, in partnership with Sunderland Library Service.

An example of The Cultural Springs' Activities Brochure (PDF)

Delivery costs

In total £12,084 was spent on creative craft packs.

However, £6,366 was secured from Sunderland Council for Wearside-based craft packs in specific wards, and £600 was also secured from South Tyneside Council, also for work in specific wards. More than £11,000 was eventually received from local authority contributions.

The Cultural Spring also secured £31,000 from ACE for our Loneliness Project which included some of our non-digital projects and others, and enabled us to reach a further 500 participants.

Including the Loneliness Project, we spent more than £91,000 on engagement activities between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and September 2021.


Business as usual was not possible, but we ensured a diverse range of arts engagement and participation opportunities. Despite the pandemic we exceeded target numbers for participants, commissioned artists/creative practitioners and new companies, almost achieved targets for commissioned organisations, community arts champions and commissioning forums. We understandably fell short of some of our targets for audience numbers at large-scale events and volunteers recruited.

Our project evaluators, CoLibra completed a report into the first 18 months of our Phase 3. The report covers the period from April 1, 2020 to August 31, 2021. The report states:

The Cultural Spring has delivered:

  • 5 Community Research & Development projects
  • 4 Your Art Community Commission projects
  • 23 workshops (digital and non-digital) and distributed 2,120 craft packs
  • They have successfully engaged 3,837 participants, 23 Community Arts Champions and 4 Community Forums
  • They have secured just shy of £43,000.00 to support and extend activities and provided income for 32 creative practitioners and creative organisations.

Press coverage praising The Cultural Spring for its efforts during the pandemic (external site)


The beneficiaries of our activity over the last 18 months have been:

  • Workshop participants who continued to engage with arts activity despite the restrictions of Covid lockdowns;
  • People who were – or in danger of becoming – socially isolated through physical or mental ill-health; disability; being a carer;
  • Artists and creative practitioners who found work difficult to find during lockdowns and Covid restrictions;
  • Communities who we continued to help engage with each other;
  • Local authorities who we helped.

Participant John Edwards attended a series of poetry workshops and the Folking Around the World sessions. He said:

“The poetry sessions run by Rowan McCabe were just brilliant – very well organised, structured and supported. We were given a theme and worked on that, everyone provided feedback which sounded daunting but was very supportive. It’s not something I’d ever thought I’d do, but thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m still writing poems now – and emailing to them to Rowan months after the workshops finished.”

Quotes from other participants included:

‘ Helped keep a positive outlook and cheered me up’
‘ Something to focus on during a difficult time’
‘Feel great after each workshop. Connected and a bit lighter’

‘I liked this because I don’t have transport to go to workshops and lots of classes pretend to be disabled and wheelchair accessible but are not. This class was free and easy to do any time of day’

‘This workshop has given me a little happiness in the strange times we are currently living in

 We also had some very positive feedback from our venues, Paula Hunt, from Ryhope Community Centre, for instance, said:

'The Cultural Spring has long been a partner of ours and we'd worked on several projects together before the pandemic began. Clearly Covid affected the community association hugely, but I was impressed by the speed by which The Cultural Spring pivoted to a different delivery model. We helped distribute their arts activity packs which were very well received within Ryhope, particularly by those feeling isolated during lockdowns and Covid restrictions. 

'When we were coming out of the toughest restrictions we then worked with The Cultural Spring and artist Liz Million on a book about the village during the pandemic. This project involved people of all ages and background across the village, and brought out the humour from a very difficult time. The resulting book is something of which everyone involved should be proud.'

 Meanwhile, feedback from craft pack participants included:

‘Brilliant idea. Made me feel really special to be receiving a pack of treasures and treats to create. It really changed my mood and gave me something worthwhile to do’

‘Great idea. Lovely surprise not knowing what to expect, but having the opportunity to create an art piece of your own out of something’

‘Due to the unprecedented situation, my kids cannot have a normal life, so this type of activity helps their mind and body to be active’

‘As a carer, I need an outlet and, for me, crafting is it. The craft is also easy enough for my relative with dementia to join in too’.

Our external evaluators CoLibra concluded: Both the supply side (artists and creative practitioners) and demand side (participants) of the Cultural Spring’s project were vocal in voicing their appreciation of the new and ongoing arts and cultural offerings and support made available during the pandemic. These contributed to the improved wellbeing of participants, enhanced connections and the financial wellbeing of the local arts economy.


Measure Non digital workshop participant Digital workshop participant
Reporting that participation had made them feel happy 100% 90%
Sense of achievement 100% 95%
Learned something new 88% 93%
Appetite/intention to engage in future arts activities 100% 100%
Would recommend to others 100% 100%
Valued the social aspect of the engagement 78% 55%


Cultural Springs Phase 2 Final Evaluation Infographic (PDF) 

Successes and challenges

Our pivot to deliver digital activities worked well, as did our moves to provide non-digital activities for those without internet access.

Despite the limitations of working during a pandemic, we have successfully hit many of our three-year targets after only 18 months of Phase 3.

The biggest hurdle was finding new ways of working to continue engaging with our audiences – including getting to grips with new technology. Another challenge was finding new and improved ways of promoting what we were doing.

Tips and takeaways

  • Act quickly;
  • Be prepared to adapt and change when things aren’t working;
  • Listen to your audiences and participants, and know your communities;
  • Don’t forget your own team(s);
  • Be brave, but be realistic;
  • Partnership working and ensuring our values align is paramount during challenging times;
  • Never forget the most vulnerable in our communities and find ways to engage them.


We have learned so much during what has been an incredibly difficult and challenging few months.

Lessons learned include how important arts and cultural activity can be in terms of mental well-being. We’re also assessing our delivery model moving forward – i.e. are there elements of online delivery that worked well that we need to incorporate in future work? We think in future our programme will be a hybrid one – and would like to test how in-person and online workshops can be delivered simultaneously.

We learned a great deal about hybrid working, with the team’s working time being split between home and office.

New and deeper partnerships were developed and made possible because of shared values.

Rob Lawson head and shoulders

Rob Lawson, Press Officer, The Cultural Spring

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Resource type: Case studies | Published: 2022