In the second of the BSG Creative SIG’s series on creative ageing in practice, Lucy Rix, who leads the Celebrating Age programme at Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham, shares her reflections on the successes of the programme. As MAC’s Community Engagement Producer, Lucy is responsible for finding creative and inspiring ways to engage Birmingham residents aged 65 and over with a wide range of arts activities such as drawing and painting, photography and Tai Chi, with an overall aim of reducing social isolation and increasing well-being.

One of MAC’s most successful and well-received initiatives as part of Celebrating Age has been its monthly Culture Club, which was launched in January 2019. Between 20 and 30 people aged 65 and over meet every month at MAC for refreshments and then take part in a free arts-related workshop usually led by one of MAC’s artist tutors from its popular courses programme, or by artists from MAC associate organisations including Little Earthquake and Sampad South Asian Arts & Heritage. Participants come from a wide range of backgrounds, with recruitment focussing on local retirement homes, lunch clubs and Ageing Better hubs. Many Culture Club members are newly retired or perhaps going through other transitions in their lives where they are looking for an opportunity to meet new people, learn new skills or further tap into their creative interests.

More recently Culture Club has branched into more specialised one off workshops such as a Japanese Tea Ceremony (or ‘Tay’ ceremony as this one had a Black Country twist). In this session, held on Japan’s Respect for the Elderly Day (16th Sept), participants learned not only about a traditional tea ceremony but workshop leader Philip Holyman (Little Earthquake) shared stories and anecdotes from his Black Country upbringing. All participants shared tea, cake and stories with each other leaving the session with a pledge to invite four guests each to their own tea ceremony at home. Participants have been vocally enthusiastic about the club and have specifically welcomed the fact that it ‘doesn’t feel like an old people’s club’.

As part of the programme MAC has partnered with national charity, Contact the Elderly, famous for their tea parties held in hosts’ houses. Aimed at the slightly older age group from aged 75 and up, MAC now holds quarterly contemporary Sunday afternoon tea parties called Tea with a Twist, with the local branches of the charity. The groups bring along their older guests to enjoy high quality performances such as Big Band swing music and Indian Kathak dance.

MAC’s Celebrating Age programme will continue to grow and evolve over the next two years culminating in a festival in 2021 produced for and by older people. As part of this journey, an older curators’ group will be launched in January 2020 with members getting the great opportunity to work with an artist to learn about visual arts and the process of curating. In 2021, an exhibition curated by the group will form part of the festival.

Members of Culture Club are now more engaged in the arts as a whole, many now attending other performances at MAC or signing up for regular courses. In addition two members are also beginning to develop their own arts practice with the aim of exhibiting work and curating. It is hoped that the Older Curator’s Club will support this. MAC is interested in the journey of older artists and in thinking about the challenges for emerging artists in their 60s and 70s.

The social aspect of the programme has also meant that new friendships have formed over the year that Culture Club has been running and these friendships extend beyond the activities provided at MAC with members meeting up at other times for coffee and social interaction. One of the overall aims of the Celebrating Age programme is to reduce isolation and loneliness, which is not just felt by those in care homes but also by those affected by a change in lifestyle or a big life event such as retirement or bereavement. MAC is proud to offer opportunities for everyone within its multi arts venue, and Celebrating Age is challenging us to consider our programming and access more widely as we open our doors to this older age group.