National Lottery recognition for inspirational Kent artistic director

·6 min read
Beth has blazed a trail for the arts in lockdown through her hard work and dedication at Square Pegs Arts
Beth has blazed a trail for the arts in lockdown through her hard work and dedication at Square Pegs Arts

A Kent resident will appear in a unique photography exhibition after being recognised by the National Lottery for her dedication and devotion to keeping the arts alive and accessible for all during the pandemic.

Beth James, 38, who is the artistic director at Square Pegs Arts and won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2017, lives with husband, Paul, associate artist, and daughter, Harmony, 2, in Aylesford.

The digital exhibition marks the first time in history eight of the UK’s most iconic art galleries - including London’s National Portrait Gallery, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham and The MAC in Belfast and the British Film Institute (BFI) - have come together in this way.

The collection, titled ‘The National Lottery’s 2020 Portraits of the People’ celebrates the remarkable individuals, including Beth, who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to bring creativity, enjoyment and enrichment to people in new ways.

Thirteen powerful and poignant portraits have been created by Chris Floyd, who normally photographs celebrities such as Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Mo Farah and Victoria Beckham.

The exhibition was born out of National Lottery insights which indicate a ‘domestic renaissance’ in people enjoying the arts at home with almost 2 in 3 (61%) of those saying it helped their state of mind during the crisis, and more than half (51%) believing the positive impacts on their wellbeing would be long-lasting.

“We’ve been running Square Pegs Art for over 15 years now,” said Beth. “We offer arts-based opportunities for children, young people and adults who have learning disabilities and autism.

“We run drama groups, music projects, accessible film screenings and have a professional theatre company for artists with learning disabilities.

“I was approached by a parent of a 12-year-old who had autism, who wanted a drama group set up for her son and his friends, that was inclusive and specialist in terms of working with that particular group.

“So, we set one up. Initially, it was just on a voluntary basis with six young people and it’s grown from there. That original boy, Jack Loadmore, is still involved in us 15 years later now he’s in his mid-20s.

“We’ve grown massively over the years and it’s become such a huge part of my life – the group even performed at my wedding in Deal, they have made my life complete really.

“We’ve gone from one small little drama group to now working with 70 or 80 people a week. We’ve made a difference to a lot of lives in that time, and that’s the important bit for me.”

Beth has dedicated her working life to providing opportunities to access drama, singing and arts workshops to children and adults with learning disabilities, autism and additional needs.

Square Peg Arts covers Kent and has drama groups, singing groups, accessible film clubs and is also a professional theatre company.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused immense disruption to the lives of members, for whom structure, routine and social contact are immensely important and often very challenging to maintain at the best of times.

During lockdown many have suffered great anxiety – not fully understanding the situation, being moved from their supported accommodation back home, or not being able to see or hug their families.

Square Pegs’ meeting facilities were closed and Beth and the team of staff and volunteers continued to keep regular contact with members and their families to craft a suitable substitute for weekly sessions.

They moved to virtual sessions and have been able to build trust and skills in this method and maintain contact with pretty much all the group members, giving them some important weekly structure.

“When we first went into lockdown it was pretty tough,” added Beth. “It was that moment where we felt we can’t stop what we’re doing and we can’t abandon everyone who relies on us. I knew it was going to be crucial that we really supported the people that we work with.

“Because of the nature of the people we work with, we had to do quite a lot of work and needed everything to be accessible. So, we had to develop an easy read guide to working online so that we could get everyone online.

“We’ve been running most of our projects on Zoom, which has worked really well and we spent a lot of time, care and consideration into that.

“It was a lot of hard work but we made individual phone calls to everybody, sent care packages out in the post and transferred everything online, which actually has been working really, really well.”

National Lottery players raise £30 million a week for good causes around the country, funding thousands of projects that make a huge difference to people’s wellbeing.

“Getting funding from the National Lottery meant I was able to pay my team, who are all freelance artists, so I was able to give them work when they’d lost a lot of their other work as well, which was obviously great” said Beth.

“Various funding comes through The National Lottery – the Arts Council who we work with is part of Lottery funding which has allowed us to do continue doing what we do.

“It’s been integral to us making a real difference. It’s contributed to what we’ve been able to achieve.

“I’m overwhelmed and surprised about receiving the recognition - I don’t actually know how it even happened or how I was nominated, but mainly I’m just overwhelmed.”

Beth is one of 13 individuals who is being honoured for her inspirational work to help support the arts during the pandemic
Beth is one of 13 individuals who is being honoured for her inspirational work to help support the arts during the pandemic

The digital exhibition in which Beth’s portrait features can be visited on the websites and social media of: The National Portrait Gallery, The National Museum of Wales, The MAC in Belfast, IKON Gallery in Birmingham, Summerhall in Edinburgh, Ty Pawb, Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales, The Photographers’ Gallery in London and The British Film Institute. The portraits will also be on display at BFI Southbank in London.

Photographer Chris Floyd added: “The journey to capture these artists of all varieties was an incredibly humbling one. I wanted to do justice to the ongoing and selfless efforts of these creatives and creators who have taken their skills within the arts and built accessible resources for those who needed it most. It feels like a small thank you in comparison to what they’ve done for their local communities and for the arts sector as whole.”

Darren Henley, the CEO of Arts Council England said: “People in the UK have a great love of creativity, art and culture. We know these things can bring us together, enrich our lives, support our emotional wellbeing, and make us happier.

“Throughout lockdown we've seen that in villages, towns and cities, people have continued to participate and enjoy the arts whether that's at home, digitally, or through socially distanced activities within their communities.”

The works aim to create a ‘moment in history’, preserving the work of these unheralded champions for posterity and encapsulating the varied and innovative ways art can be expressed.

Image credit: National Lottery 2020’s Portraits of the People by Chris Floyd