• Bryony Harris, Director of organisation member Arts Active
News & Views
Championing the power of all artforms to support wellbeing
Date posted: 03 August 2021
Bryony Harris, Director of Sound Sense member organisation Arts Active, spoke with Amy Hill about the value of multi-arts programmes and how the Cardiff-based music charity quickly adapted during the pandemic to continue to serve its participants

Can you tell me about your background in community arts and how you came to be Director of Arts Active?

My background, from a strictly educational point of view, is actually in visual arts and
history of art. From there I moved at first towards galleries and museums. One of my
first jobs was a placement through the Jobstart schemes in my local museum in Kingston upon Thames. I worked alongside the curator and education officer doing whatever was needed. It was a great way to see behind the scenes in a small local venue that was at the heart of a community, in a small and quite historic town. It was there that I started to get involved in the educational and participatory element of the museum’s activities, alongside the small collection and exhibition programme.

Then I started to work freelance delivering creative activities locally both in museums and in schools. I offered bespoke workshops often combining arts activities with other elements of the curriculum. That was the starting point of my journey into the work that I do now.

However, in addition to the strong thread of the visual arts, I have always been passionate about performance and particularly dance. In my teens I was a committed dancer who from a very young age dreamt of being ‘The Swan’. Unfortunately, that was never to be, a combination of not quite enough talent and a period of ill health put an early end to those dreams. It turns out it would be the art room that saved me, giving me a new way to express myself in place of dancing.

I have been in Wales now for over 20 years having taken a leap of faith and full-time
job as the education assistant at St David’s Hall and the New Theatre. This brought me back into the world of performing arts but with that same emphasis on participation, education, as well as championing the power of all artforms to support wellbeing. I was fortunate to have landed on my feet as half of a small team of two like-minded people.

At that time the programme of work was relatively modest, but we collaborated with artists in all disciplines, always with the creative process at the heart of what we did. Over the past twenty years our programme has grown and developed its own identity as Arts Active and extended its reach enormously, but we are still firmly anchored to St David’s Hall in Cardiff.

Arts Active run multi-arts programmes, what portion of the projects you run are music-based, and do you find there is an appetite for crossover arts activities. What do these projects look like?

For some time now we have had a discreet policy that the majority of our projects have a cross arts approach. Whilst it is not completely true of all our activities, it is certainly the way that as a team we approach programming. Being based at St David’s Hall, the National Concert Hall for Wales does mean that the highest proportion of our projects have music as their primary art form or starting point, but many of these combine other artforms within them. There is definitely a growing appetite for cross art activity, particularly in Wales where we are in the process of introducing the new Curriculum for Wales in our schools. The framework of the new curriculum places a strong emphasis on creativity, the creative process and the significant benefits of approaches to learning through creative activities. Within this framework there is a direction towards more cross disciplinary and cross curricular working.

In fact I think it simply mirrors the reality of life and in particular of working in the creative industries. For example music is invariably integral to the creation of a film just as much as the design, direction and drama. In the field of gaming the music and the design have to work together with the digital creatives that craft and code the immersive worlds of the game.

To proceed seeing artforms siloed is unrealistic and limits the extent to which we can reach our participants and provide them with immersive and exhilarating participatory experiences.

Like so many organisations during the pandemic, adaptability and creative thinking when it came to delivery methods were the key to surviving, and in many cases, actually thriving. What was your approach in navigating the odd landscape of 2020 and still now in 2021, in ensuring Arts Active not only survived, but thrived?

In those strange and troubling first days of lockdown our first instinct was to find any way we could to keep going for the sake of our participants, audiences and our freelance practitioners for whom most work had stopped completely.

As a result, we decided to launch straight into delivering as many of our planned projects that we could through digital and remote means. It was a learning curve for all of us and would not have been possible if it was not for the commitment and skills that were existing in the team. I can take very little credit for the results - that must go to the team and their tireless work to deliver what has become an extensive programme of online content. It is fair to say that we have all learned as we’ve gone along, and I am sure that our output has developed and become more sophisticated.

Last summer in place of our annual cross arts youth arts summer school we decided to instead present a month-long digital festival called Out of Doors. Forty-six short videos including a wide range of artforms provided a taster menu of different creative activities that anyone of any age could try at home. Our theme celebrated the freedom that we were at that time granted - to go out of doors - if only as far as a local park.

By the end of last year we had broadcast / published and run over 150 streamed videos or live Zoom and podcasts sessions which all remain available through our website and YouTube channels. We continue now to deliver our programme almost exclusively through digital channels but cannot wait to get back into the rehearsal rooms, classrooms and studios we are more used to being in.

What also has been abundantly clear throughout our mini digital revolution is the inequality of digital access in Wales. Therefore we have to work to reach out physically to those who we cannot reach online and that is more of a challenge. In Summer 2020 we were able to distribute physical creativity packs to over 1850 young people through their schools and through food banks. It was another mammoth task but an important one to help to support wellbeing.


This is an extract of an interview that was published in the July issue of Sounding Board, the journal of community music. Sounding Board is a rich source of shared community music practice, research, information and inspiration from across our sector that is for and by Sound Sense members. Get in touch with us today to chat about joining the Sound Sense family of music practitioners - we would love to hear from you.