Surviving the Pandemic

The Creative Factory experience through COVID-19

By Deb Slade

Walsall Creative Factory CIC, a collective of freelance community art workers that has grown since the Community Interest Company started in 2014 to now have a workshop based in The Butts near Walsall Town Centre.


Originally the collective would fundraise, develop and deliver arts and heritage project work led by different members with the core directors steering what projects were developed so projects were not competing and the membership was developed to have differing delivery skills as preferred deliverers on projects. This is a fine balance; everyone works freelance and no one expects to earn their entire living out of the organisation and different people can lead projects. The directors ensure the proposals will add value and that work carried out is of a high quality to maintain the reputation of the company.  A fluctuating membership of associate artists is based on interest and needs at the time with partnerships with other organisations developed for specific projects. The development of projects is entrepreneurial by nature and bid writing is rarely a paid role, the bid writer would need to build a paid management role as part of the budget to ensure the project was successful and do all the reports and evaluations needed.

In 2019 the company experimented by opening a pop-up venue to serve the needs of 2 projects that needed to hire space to meet weekly over 6 months. Launching a Creative Factory workspace, rather than just hiring a space opened up the opportunity to use it as a workshop for our artists, but also open up all kinds of community opportunities.

Three key members of Creative Factory, Deb Slade, Maxine Haywood and Ruth Radcliffe took on the role of developing the venue, a combination of paid sessions through the project work and volunteering for other sessions and the hard graft of setting up and maintaining the venue. 

A timetable was drawn up starting with the 2 funded projects: Chat and craft – pre ESOL sessions using craft with parents and children learning English as a second language, and a cohesion programme with Asian elders, vulnerable people and young people on the ASD spectrum. The sessions were mostly very successful and to date have been maintained in one form or another through finding different grants, a small Public health grant also supported us to work with those isolated in the community to support their well being and connectivity. 

Fee-paying arts classes and one-off workshops were scheduled to varying success, which helped to bring some income to the core team and towards the core costs of the venue.

Membership was originally largely drawn from participants from a large community embroidery project, Walsall Silver Thread Tapestries also with a few like-minded arts practitioners was developed. For a small fee £25 for 6 months a member can attend anytime have a free nice hot drink, (there’s usually cake too!) and come and craft their own project. The deal was that while there they would socialise with our project clients. They could also put handmade crafts on the walls and shelves for sale or just to show. 

The timetable 10 – 4pm Mon to Fri filled up between the project sessions with general drop-in times at £2 per person and sometimes the clientele blurred and new groupings of people came e.g. from the local deaf home, more recently a foster caring family session. Where we can we accommodate, we would have a go, some things worked some faded away. Drop-in sessions are run by ourselves volunteering, with some of our members becoming core volunteers too, running peer-led sessions.

Lastly, quite naturally we developed community events which became the bedrock of our cohesion work particularly in integrating the local Miripuri community who make up more than half of the population at the local primary school, also the vulnerable clients who are now known by name by many people in the community, and weekly use of the centre by a predominately Polish group of families supporting their emotional wellbeing. Local musicians also used the venue to run an open mic night.

The place became really special with true community ownership, and a wider following of over 1000 and a monthly attendance of up to 450 visits are recorded. Creative Factory has managed to keep the workshop open for over 2 years now.

However, behind the scenes, it has been a continuous battle in a cycle of juggling small grants each requiring regular monitoring paperwork some of this work is paid for within the grants some not, on four occasions we have had as little as £5 in the bank as we straddle gaps in grant funding, many times the core team have struggled to pay their own bills but have made sure the service continues. We simply haven’t had the luxury of time to dedicate to scaling up the grant applications to the level needed, but still we survived through giving our time and riding out the stressful times. 

We also have to juggle the expectation of others. We can’t deliver everything and are regularly approached by services and freelancers to support, develop work and partnership and have to juggle a fine line, willing to try where we can but also have to keep our eye and our main efforts on keeping the core service and centre going.

In early 2020 one such time limping between grants to pay core costs, funds very low on the bank, but very hopeful about some planned Deaf Cafes and Entrepreneurs networking sessions, a combination of hires and sessional work. We had maintained an element of project work alongside running the centre, so were nearing the end of a Heritage Lottery project about Walsall Wrestlers led by another CF artist Steve Pottinger, and just planning a Windrush project Funded by The Church Urban Fund for summer 2020 with a partnership of 5 organisations and local photographer Ade Wressel started a community portraits project, this one without any funding at the time.

Then Covid 19 hit the UK. 

We had to close our doors with the first lockdown in March 2020. All our usual grant bodies closed.

Buoyed by a small health grant and an extension of a small Cohesion grant both adapting to deliver covid support work we turned our attention to transforming our service to the following strands of work.

  • For our 100 or so regulars we developed chat groups/ different platforms for communication
  • We made a list of another 100 or so vulnerable clients/ members splitting them between ourselves and volunteers (where appropriate) to keep in contact and give practical support as necessary. Local shielders were added to this list and new local vulnerable people. In a handful of situations, there have been very serious issues.
  • We developed a local coronavirus support network for our immediate neighbourhood with over 300 households involved, and became the formal local contact to cascade info and to coordinate volunteers and support wellbeing and neighbourhood development. This became the main place for us to cascade information about what we were doing as we could not sustain supporting any demand from 1000 plus contacts on our Facebook page.

As time went on, as a venue we were eligible for a Covid business support grant (and subsequent small lockdown grants), and applied for a Lottery covid support delivery grant, very small grants from Peoples Postcode Lottery and National Youth Agency. So again, juggling multiple grant applications (several more were unsuccessful but still time-consuming), thankfully the grants were mostly lighter in the need for reporting back.

Local support for Creative Factory grew as we found ways to develop socially distanced events around the streets with The local Allotments as partners. We were really good at this and the community response has been amazing. We had to keep the information about our events strictly local to avoid visitors hungry for creative and entertaining activity from coming into the area to keep numbers manageable for social distancing. 

We supported many individuals with some crucial basic practical and emotional help

We developed projects, some with no additional funding, to create large collective artwork part of a raft of ways we tried to help people feel connected, and joined in with a network of ladies, with our ladies making hundreds of washbags for NHS and Care homes which helped people feel less helpless while helping others. The eldest was 95 years old.

We used our windows for special displays involving many people’s art and craftwork and everyone’s windows/ gardens to join in with art trails especially for the children and to deliver positive messages

We made and delivered 100’s of imaginative craft packs many to children and young people which required them to be in touch with neighbours or feel connected in some way

Our deliveries and our support involved doorstep chat visits, phone calls, messages, sometimes we knew we were the only contact for that person.  For a handful, we held one to one sessions in our centre as they did not understand the lockdowns, were deteriorating and helped some in crisis to get the help they needed.

In the autumn we partially opened with small bubble groups for a couple of months before closing with lockdown 2 in December.

Some of the interventions will continue, friendships have been made for life, groups and networks that have made an impact for individuals and communities will continue on. Creative Factory now has an even larger local support base, we hope to continue a local calendar of street-based events. 

The cost along the way has been a roller coaster year for our core team, dealing with our own family vulnerabilities and close bereavements and funerals alongside caring for a community and individuals has been our own personal juggle. We have all had our moments.

We managed to complete the Windrush project after going through many adaptions because of the restrictions but also because of the vulnerabilities of the elderly client group, through the hard work of freelancers Kiani and Yvette from Inspired to Inspire and Unique coaching for U, also through bringing in freelance photographer Nelson Douglas. The Wrestling project got its delayed Walsall exhibition using our windows to be seen by a passing audience so was also able to be completed. 

A lifeline came for Creative Factory as we turned into 2021 in a commission from Xtra Mile CIC from their successful Reignite bid to support local arts organisations to survive coming out of lockdown. We were able to fund and complete the Community Photography project and giant crochet project which have been displayed in our windows, the Arboretum bandstand along with work from the Bridge Art Project and Photo Portraits in a Walsall Town Centre empty shop. The funding from this has supported the organisation to survive January – March when we were again in real danger of folding.

So in spring 2021 as we are coming out of lockdown 3 and we find ourselves in the same position as the year before with £20 In the bank with both our organisation and our core team deciding which bills to pay.  Whilst our Creative Factory work has limped along, we all rely on other freelance work to survive which all stopped for all the lockdowns; and like the nations Art workers have had to face our own difficult personal financial decisions.

The covid grants have now dried up and we have been transitioning back to our pre-Covid centre-based work madly applying for grants which have taken up weeks of our time in an even more competitive world, and have finally successfully secured a Heritage Lottery Cultural Recovery grant, though still not in the bank yet. The purpose of the grant is to pay our core costs for 3 months, buy some equipment and training to try to future proof Creative Factory as an organisation and upskill our core team to future proof our practice. 

As other services and workers come out of Furlough and are keen to get going, we are contacted by a raft of people all seeing what we have achieved and want to meet to find out how we can contribute or freelancers wanting to work with us and frankly, we are exhausted and don’t have the capacity, we are still delivering working/ volunteering all hours as throughout this Covid Year. As an organisation, we need to breathe out, review what we do, how we do it, whilst opening our doors once more, it’s a lot. As workers, we need to take a hard-earned break though can’t yet.

We still have a long way to go to secure core funding for our organisation from July onwards but have faith that we can finally, hopefully scale up to those bigger bids. With more time we can finally also develop 2 Heritage project funding bids that have been on the back burner since long before the Pandemic, one looking at the memories of Walsall Illuminations in partnership with those who worked on them, another looking at the history of local community publishing along with the potential development of a community printing service, both bids involve many local people in their development. So big plans to help with our future sustainability... fingers crossed!

We thank everyone for the amazing support shown by our organisation through this remarkably difficult year. We are so grateful to have survived this far against the odds and we know that having the work and volunteering to do is also a privilege. Our volunteers, the Creative Factory family are truly amazing, without whom we would certainly have faltered. We reopen quietly for 6 people at a time from our more vulnerable clients with Covid-19 precautions in place, our timetable is already full. We hope to scale up as restrictions lift to welcome everyone back in time, and have a multitude of requests to restart social events and organise a day trip (2 coachloads last time, I think we may need 4 this time)... again fingers crossed.

We may seem like a swan gracefully gliding showing our best side up but underneath the not so pretty feet are working furiously hard. Sheer hard graft from many people, some paid hours but mostly unpaid, some good luck and a resilient shapeshifting nature has got us through so far, we may need a rest to catch our breath behind the scenes but hope to carry on… fingers crossed.