For Belfast-based Golden Thread Gallery, co-creation is integral to broadening access to contemporary arts in Northern Ireland. In a place where only a minuscule amount of the population identifies as non-white, minority groups – especially refugee women and children – are challenged by sectarianism and high social deprivation.
“If you’re in one of the tiniest communities in this very complicated place, you’re probably more affected than anything,” says Liz Byrne, Development and Fundraising Officer at the gallery.
Building cross-cultural connections
The gallery has steadily built relationships with minority communities by actively listening, before responding to specific needs. They hosted a year-long talk series exploring the state of diversity in the local arts scene with cultural leaders of colour.
Going beyond conversations, the gallery went on to develop various arts-based outreach programmes to engage individuals who previously may have not be involved in arts activities. This began with a six-week pilot workshop for migrant women at Anaka Collective and Women on World exploring different art techniques.
In one session, they were asked to think about a flower from their home country, sparking cross-cultural conversations about identity, migration and motherhood. The prompts provided a framework for the women – some of whom had fled from wartime situations – to express themselves and process trauma. One woman shared, “I think the sisterhood of the experience – I think we sometimes miss this, to have that time without your families and just a woman-to-woman experience.”
Creating opportunities through co-creation
Collaboration was not forged, but developed through time, trust and mutual understanding. Rather than dictating the programme, the Golden Thread Gallery gave communities the agency to decide what they wanted to learn. Women who took part in the pilot workshop were offered paid opportunities to translate and facilitate subsequent projects. Over time, their interests and aspirations shaped the programmes while the gallery continued to provide creative tools.
When the gallery wanted to create free ‘Welcome to Belfast’ packs for children, women from their community advised on what to include and which languages to translate to, ensuring relevance and reach. Each pack contained art supplies, a colouring book of landmarks and a publication about life in Northern Ireland, written in Arabic, Farsi and English. In June 2022, 350 free packs were distributed to children across Belfast, including to young asylum seekers. The gallery also developed workshops for families. People aged 8 to 65, from countries including Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, East Timor and Lithuania took part.
Fostering shared ownership
Golden Thread Gallery recognises that shared ownership and shared space helps encourage a sense of belonging and empowerment. Building on lessons from past programmes, they created a ‘Process Room’ within an exhibition area where visitors could respond and share their experiences with others. It became the heart of the exhibition. Deputy Director Sarah McAvera shared, “everyone connected in different ways with us… for some it was about language, for others it was about making connections.”
Looking ahead, the gallery is committed to engaging hard-to-reach groups and individuals of all ages, abilities and ethnicities, by listening and working collaboratively, and further opportunity for co-creation. They have plans to install a new Process Room in Belfast for the community to come and work, and a range of activities planned – from workshops to an after-school arts club.
By Chiquita Kusumahadi, King’s College London Cultural & Creative Industries MA.Other case studies