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A Magazine for Sheffield

Hillsborough needs an arts organisation that breaks boundaries - and it’s got one!

RivelinCo are an arts centre without walls, and they see collaboration as providing “imaginative solutions for impossible problems”.

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I had the privilege of speaking to RivelinCo's founding director Linda Bloomfield about delivery of arts and culture projects, serving the needs of people in Hillsborough, and what RivelinCo have going on.

Could you please tell me a little bit about RivelinCo?

Sure! RivelinCo is a neighbourhood arts centre without walls. We say that we're without walls because the majority of our programme takes place in public and community spaces, like parks and outdoors, car parks, community centres, sports centres, schools, and care homes and all sorts of other different places.

Everything we do relates to creativity and culture, so we cover things like music, art, dance, and drama as you’d expect - but we also cover a broader cultural spectrum. We do projects in woodwork, metalwork, cooking, gardening, and languages and things like that too.

We're based in Hillsborough and we serve the local S6 neighbourhood. And we're intergenerational, so we work with people of all ages locally.

What’s the intergenerational aspect of your work?

The intergenerational aspect is really important to us, and has been really important to me since before I started the organisation. One of our big partners is Age UK Sheffield, who run the facilities in Hillsborough Park called Gathering Ground. We work with them as the lead creative partner, running the programmes in those facilities. A lot of our work is therefore accessible for older people.

Something we also tried this year was a very specific intergenerational project, led by artists Imogen Ashby and Wemmy Ogunyankin, which we're about to launch an exhibition for at Hillsborough library, actually. We brought together children from year five at Hillsborough primary school, and adults aged between 60 and 90 in who live in Hillsborough. They were paired up and we did a photography project, reflecting on lockdown.

Each pair found similarities and differences between their experiences during lockdown and then directed their own photography shoot themed on a lesson that they'd learned together during Covid. Anything from ‘I learned how to bake’ or ‘I learned to be creative’ through to ‘I learned how much I need other people’.

That was a really beautiful opportunity to connect up those different groups and find common ground.

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I saw your Twitter thread about how difficult it was to find a new shop front. Could you tell me a little bit about that journey?

It was a really long, arduous journey. We thought it would make a lot of sense for us to move into a shop front because there are a lot of empty shops in Hillsborough, and we needed a space. And there's a surprisingly little amount of office space available in Hillsborough.

We perhaps naively thought at the beginning that it would be relatively easy. We started the same way everyone else does, on Rightmove, looking at possible places. And it just became clear quite quickly that it's much more difficult than we ever could have imagined to get into any of the empty shops. Even the ones that are advertised can be quite challenging because they're on very short term leases, or they get dropped or moved around different estate agents or landlords want you to take on all of the astronomical cost of repairing something that they’ve neglected and left empty for 10 years. We had problems with absentee landlords, with landlords that live in different cities or overseas, people just never getting back to us or ghosting us halfway through the process.

We had a couple of occasions where we tried to get in somewhere and got fairly far down the line, and then the landlord pulled out and decided to sell the property instead. Those ones are still sat empty now. So yeah, it was a bit of a nightmare.

The reason for doing the thread was because I think there's a lot of assumptions that shops are empty because of online shopping or because people don't want to open shops anymore. And actually, this was us finding out that it's very much not just that, and there are a lot of other problems stopping people from getting through the door.

How do you think having a shop front will change what RivelinCo does?

It'll make a massive difference for us because it means that we can actually be based in our neighbourhood. When we first started, we were all remote working - we're a very small team. And then we did manage to get office space last year, but the nearest place we could get was in Kelham Island. So we were trying to deliver a project which serves Hillsborough, but we weren’t actually based in Hillsborough!

The shop front finally means that we can be based pretty much opposite Hillsborough Park, which is where we do a lot of our work. We’re really visible and therefore more accessible for local people who might want to drop in and find out what we're doing, or find out how to book onto something – we can just be more available for local people, which will make a big difference to our work.

Also with a shop front, as well as it being our base, we have an opportunity to have a bit of extra space – so we can share that with our community, and will be able to offer space for other people to run projects here or to use the space for clubs or activities or workshops or other creative community things.

We are also going to be launching a new project called the Borrow Shop from the new premises: we're currently working out a way that we can share our creative and technical equipment with other artists and cultural organisations, and with our community as well. We'll be able to do that from our new base, which is something we never could have done from our little office space before.

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You recently had the Midsummer Festival in Hillsborough Park and it was wonderful to see - there were Black and Brown kids coming to your events, and hijabi women joining in. To me, it felt like the Sheffield that I’ve always known, but it’s not always the Sheffield that you see perhaps in events in the city centre. How do you think RivelinCo is embedded into Hillsborough, and vice versa?

A lot of the stuff we do is open to everybody, and everybody is welcome. But, as you say, we often need to do that extra bit of work to make sure that actually, those are the kind of opportunities that are for everybody, and that you're actually reaching everybody.

We primarily target people who are most at risk of social isolation in our community, and that is quite broad. That might be older people who live on their own. It might be people with disabilities or mental health conditions. It can be people who are struggling with the cost of living crisis or are out of work, there's loads of different reasons people might be feeling that way.

We try to make sure that we're doing enough work on the ground with all those different groups so that people feel welcome to then come to the activities and events that are open for everybody.

I think often arts organisations shy away from collaboration because we're so often forced into competition - for funding, for resources, for space etc - but actually we can achieve so much more by just working together, and working cross-sector too. Imaginative solutions for impossible problems!

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Sheffield is quite different to other cities like Manchester and Liverpool, that are perhaps more centralised. Different areas have very different needs, how do you tackle that in your work?

Sheffield is absolutely a city of villages! It’s why we wanted to be neighbourhood focused – in a city that’s so varied, and with each area having unique identities, we felt we could be most useful, and I suppose authentic, serving the neighbourhood we know. And really serving them, developing long-term trust and relationships, rather than paying lip service with short projects in lots of different areas.

Hillsborough is primarily a working-class area and has been for a very long time. And what that looks like has changed a lot over time. Obviously, there is now quite a mixed demographic as often happens with working-class areas, because they're cheap to live in, so people move there, and then they get a bit gentrified. Hillsborough is going through a bit of that at the moment, but still has this rich working-class heritage.

We've now existed for two and a half years in the area, and a lot of the people we've met over that time have been people who've lived here all their lives, often their family have lived here before them. We actually did a big heritage and archiving project with 600 local people in 2021 - what comes out of that is people feel really proud of that heritage. But there hasn't really been much cultural infrastructure in this area for a long time, people have had to travel into the city centre or into the south of the city to access cultural spaces or activities.

And for a lot of people, that's a massive barrier, whether that's a cost barrier, an access or transport barrier, or even just feeling welcome. Back when RivelinCo was just an idea, before it was an organisation, we did a lot of community consultation with local people to try and work out what people wanted, and whether this was even something people would be interested in. And there really was a feeling of, like, people really wanted to engage in something creative and exciting in their community, and they wanted to be able to take that risk without having to spend a lot of money travelling to town, which it turns out is a big, big barrier for people, and families. So that's kind of what we're trying to fulfil, I guess!

It’s interesting you mention resources that flit in and out of areas. Recently, the Arctic Monkeys have played at Hillsborough Park, and we’ve just had Tramlines over the weekend. After both events, and maybe especially after Tramlines, the park has been left in a bit of a state.

Hillsborough Park is quite different from, say, Endcliffe Park, where there's bigger, fancier houses and there's Sharrow Vale Road, so there's this association of food and culture and it's considered a cool place to be in Sheffield. But, Hillsborough Park is absolutely beautiful! The Midsummer Festival showed what it meant for people to go somewhere where they felt welcomed and to be able to go somewhere where you're not necessarily having to go to school or work or to the job centre or something like that, and what a difference it makes for locals.

It seems like RivelinCo is trying to have a bit more of a symbiotic relationship with the local community rather than kind of flying in and flying out. Do you have any thoughts on any of that?

Yeah, that's absolutely true. Our intention is to be here for a long time, and to try to develop programmes which are weekly or monthly or annually, where people can get to know us and build up that trust with us - trust that we're going to keep delivering things that are free or low cost, and accessible, and we're going to deliver them well and sensitively within our community.

I think Hillsborough Park is really special. It's the most accessible Park in Sheffield. And there are obviously other amazing charities who are based there for that reason, like Sheffield Cycling 4 All. The walled garden is stunning and is entirely managed by a group of brilliant volunteers. And the library sits in the middle! It does feel really like a really special place.

I think the relationship with Arctic Monkeys and Tramlines and things like that is really complicated, and quite divisive in the area. Lots of people love them, and they do genuinely good things for the area, like funding local organisations (including us!), investing money into park and access improvements, and bringing more people to the area, which is good for some local businesses over the actual event weekends.

But at the same time, and certainly this year with having two big ones almost back to back, it's also been quite tough on some of our community, as a lot of the park has been shut for lengths of time. We can see both sides, and are aware there are a lot of local people who can't access those events because the cost is too much, and so they're essentially just being shut out of a place that is normally free for weeks over the summer. That’s why it was really important to us to make sure that the Midsummer Festival sat in between those two events, as there were only two weekends in between the two events where the fences weren't up – and that it was free!

We just want to make sure that having big vibrant festivals and concerts in the park doesn’t take away opportunities for equally vibrant, community-rooted (and free) activities happening too.

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How has the cost of living crisis changed how communities function and what people need, especially after various lockdowns? A few important organisations show how culture and arts can be used to meet the very material needs that people have. I’ve seen that RivelinCo have craft afternoons or chess clubs, and I imagine it’s important for some people to go because there might be food, or somewhere safe and warm to go. I think there’s often this idea that arts and culture is for entertainment only. How do you tackle that as an arts organisation?

We’re a very small organisation, and we don't have core funding, but we're trying to do our best to make sure that at least some of our programme runs regularly most of the year, so people know they can access it when they need it and, as you say, know they can go to a safe, warm place to socialise, have a cuppa, and get creative.

We feel strongly that high-quality, artist-led work and accessibility are not mutually exclusive: activities can be both! A lot of our activities are free or low cost, or Pay What You Can, wherever we can afford for them to be. When we do charge it is always a subsidised cost and significantly less than it would be at a commercial space. We do often include food, or at the very least hot drinks and biscuits. Our weekly programme includes singing, creative writing, and crafternoons for adults. They are still high quality and artist-led, but have a social focus - bringing people together to have a go at a new thing, knowing it's OK if you’ve never done it before or you ‘aren’t very good’ at it and that doesn't matter. It’s a chance to chat to each other, have a cup of tea in a safe warm space and have that regular contact and creative time.

And we like to try and mix things up, so we also run one-off Saturday sessions where we might do something more specific like woodwork or weaving or something that people in our community have asked to learn. Those sessions are an opportunity for people to come in and learn a specific skill, but also have all those kinds of social aspects as well.

We try to make sure that in our programme, there are both opportunities, and that wherever possible, sessions do both things - we're trying to connect people to one another, even when people are from very different backgrounds or walks of life.

I think something really important for us, in terms the cost of living and how things are changing, is collaborative working. So because we're an arts centre without walls, we actually can't really exist without collaborating with other people or venues or organisations. Pretty much all the work we do is in collaboration with at least one other organisation, and we're really proud that we have built some wonderful partnerships in Sheffield which help us serve our community better. We just don't think it always needs to be a competition. Actually, at the moment, people just need things to be joined up, they need to be able to be referred to the right services, and whether that's within your organisation or outside of it, it doesn't really matter.

The thing that serves people best is making sure people are getting the service or the activity or the help that they might need in this crisis. So that's how we're trying to find our way through it.

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What's next for you guys?

It's a great question! We're renovating the shop at the moment, and we hope to host an opening event for that, probably in August or September. We want to invite people in, to celebrate but also tell us what they want from it, what they want to see happening in it, how we can be the most useful within our community.

Our Gathering Ground programme in Hillsborough Park with Age UK Sheffield will start up again in September, which is the weekly and Saturday sessions that I mentioned - singing, creative writing, crafternoons, woodwork, copper bowl making, cooking, and all sorts of other cool stuff. We are also going to be launching a weekly youth club called Young Creatives in September, for ages 11 to 16 at Hillsborough Arena, which will be an opportunity for local young people to come together, try some creative things, learn new skills, and also co-design what they want the club to look like going forward.

Last but not least, we’re also long-term working on developing the derelict gatehouse in Hillsborough Park into a Hillsborough People’s Museum!

Fantastic. That sounds so exciting.

I hope so. Thank you so much.

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