Just weeks into the easing of lockdown, as events of all kinds remained cancelled across the UK, Dorset attraction and events venue Sculpture by the Lakes pushed ahead with the launch of Dorset Arts Festival.
The inaugural Dorset Arts Festival went ahead from July 3 to 5 2020, just a few weeks after the reopening of Sculpture by the Lakes, a 26-acre sculpture park and outdoor events venue at Pallington Lakes, near Dorchester, Dorset.
Like venues and attractions of every kind across the country, Sculpture by the Lakes shut down completely for more than two months, during which time the future of the long-planned event had hung in the balance.
Even as the lockdown restrictions began to be eased in early June, the fate of the outdoor festival was by no means assured – the pace at which advice and restrictions were changing meant what was considered permissible and safe was hard to pin down. The priority for the organisers of Dorset Arts Festival was the safety of exhibitors, staff, and visitors.
But the government’s move to allow the reopening of outdoor markets at the beginning of June – among the first steps in the easing of lockdown restrictions – was a clear signal that such open-air events were thought to be among the safest kinds of public gatherings. This went a long way to persuading Simon and Monique Gudgeon, the organisers, that they could make the event work.
The challenge for Dorset Arts Festival was to create an event that would be COVID-safe, overcoming the practical challenges of social distancing, while not compromising the aim to host an enjoyable festival.
More than 40 artists and crafters, ranging from painters to wood turners to jewellers, exhibited at the event. The strongest USP of Dorset Arts Festival is the fact that artists demonstrate their craft, rather than just exhibiting. It was vital that the safety measures introduced accommodated demonstrations of the exhibitors’ work. The opportunity to observe the highly skilled and fascinated creative processes of the exhibitors was key to the event’s appeal
There was a clear need to carefully plan the layout to allow for social distancing even as people lingered to watch demonstrations and to manage any pinch points. Fortunately, Dorset Arts Festival already had in abundance the most important factors in creating a COVID-safe event and minimising the risk of contagion – an outdoor venue, and lots of space to spread out.
Making use of all the acreage at Sculpture by the Lakes, artists were placed across the site in individual temporary studios across the 26-acre sculpture park. These allowed attendees to observe exhibitors showing their work and demonstrating their creative processes from a safe distance and observe social distancing from one another.
Ticket sales were capped to avoid too many visitors and crowd control was in place. Rather than corral visitors, the event staff instructed visitors to use their judgement and behave responsibly. The decision was taken not to put up barriers and markers everywhere – instead, visitors were asked to bring and use hand sanitiser and to ensure they kept their distance. In line with social distancing and appropriate hygiene measures, only take-away food was made available.
The event was a successful approach, fostering a positive and welcoming atmosphere, while also enabling visitors to keep themselves and others safe.
Even with such safety measures in place, another key factor in the success of the event was reassuring people still highly anxious about the spread of COVID-19 that they could safely attend and enjoy the event, especially with so many other ‘festival’ type events still cancelled around the country.
A successful media campaign, capitalising on the fact that this was one of the first large scale public events to go ahead since the beginning of lockdown and incorporating reassuring messages about the safety precautions, resulted in positive coverage across local and national press, including an interview spot on the BBC news.
Dorset Arts Festival was a resounding success, attracting approximately 1800 visitors. Feedback from visitors was positive and media coverage was extensive.
Pushing ahead was the right decision according to the organisers. Sculpture by the Lakes was able to ride out the uncertainty and with careful planning and messaging to visitors, we were able to run a safe and successful event – one of the first of its kind in a post-COVID context. It was well-received by visitors and more widely as a positive waymarker on the journey back to a more normal way of life.
A success in its own right, the festival was also a means of bringing wider focus to Sculpture by the Lakes and raising awareness of advantages of outdoor venues in a post-COVID world.