Like many other sectors across the Fermanagh and Omagh district, arts and culture has been severely impacted by Covid-19.

The economic ramifications of the pandemic for artists are substantial and the impact on audience relationships with the arts and cultural sector cannot be fully realised until venues can reopen again.

The Ardhowen had to close its doors in the middle of the 40th Enniskillen Drama Festival, one of the venue’s annual highlights.

All shows and workshops scheduled to take place in the Spring and Summer seasons had to be cancelled.

The Council’s arts team have been working hard to find ways to deliver arts and culture activities for local audiences.

The Ardhowen is currently delivering ‘Intermission’, a programme of online, virtual and live-streamed performances and workshops.

The highlight of the programme is the ‘Friday Night Live!’ concerts which take place in the Ardhowen’s Gallery Bar.

A spokeswoman on behalf of the Council said: “The idea behind these concerts was to give local audiences an opportunity to experience live music, to provide an opportunity for local artists to perform and to let people know that, although the Ardhowen is closed to the public, we are very much virtually still open!”

She continued: “The first four live performances, The Hand me Downs, Ally Harron and Marian Curry, Enniskillen Light Operatic and Tully have been enthusiastically received.”

“To date, 27,000 people have watched the gigs and the audience engagement has been fantastic. Those watching have included the significant Fermanagh diaspora, with friends and family viewing from all over the world including in USA, Canada, France, Russia, Australia and Spain,” the spokeswoman added.

Over the next few weeks the Ardhowen will live-stream more new, emerging and established local bands as well as classical music. The programme includes an unique opportunity to hear Fermanagh born and internationally known tenor Andrew Irwin as well as musical theatre from Enniskillen Light Operatic and Fermanagh Musical Theatre.

Other online activities included ‘how to’ family craft videos, live singing workshops for adults, a coding dojo for children and a weekly film recommendation from Fermanagh Film Club.

The activities for children aim to complement Fermanagh and Omagh District Council’s ‘Connected Kids’ Online Summer Programme. The fun packed programme for children aged 4 to 11 years offers a range of activities suitable for most abilities.

“In the absence of a physical summer scheme the online programme was developed to provide opportunities for the Council to better highlight some of the work it does and provide opportunities for local and regional artists to develop content that encourages learning and creativity in short bite sized videos that will keep children active and engaged during the holiday period,” the Council spokeswoman explained.

When asked by this newspaper when the Ardhowen Theatre will likely reopen post-lockdown, the spokeswoman said: “In terms of a date for reopening, we are waiting for the announcement of when the easing of restrictions will allow us to do so.”

She continued: “We will be ready to open and measures will be in place to ensure that staff, customers and performers will be safe when returning.”

The Council spokeswoman went on to explain that they will need to change the way they do business for a while: “Customers can expect to see new signage, socially-distanced seating, hand sanitising points and a one-way system in parts of the building.”

“We are putting together a programme that will include small-scale music events, foreign language and arthouse films and a range of workshops,” she added.

Most of the district’s arts and cultural festivals have been cancelled including Fermanagh Live, Happy Days International Beckett Festival and the Omagh Literary Festival. The Council is working with organisers in anticipation of a return in 2021.

“I was delighted to see Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre deliver their Inside Outside online Festival and we have worked with a number of local artists and arts organisations to explore ways of finding alternative ways of delivering activities,” the spokeswoman commented, adding: “These are financially challenging times, not just for the arts but for the wider community and voluntary sector.”

Following the hardship of Covid-19, the Council has launched a new grant aid programme, RECOVER. It has been developed to support groups and assist with recovery and reanimation of activities.

“Arts and cultural organisations are eligible and I’m hoping to see art activities play a key role in the recovery and reanimation of the district,” said the spokeswoman.

Following hard upon the announcement by the Northern Ireland Executive in June of an extra £4 million for the arts across Northern Ireland, the news last week that the Executive will receive an injection of £33m from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to support arts and cultural organisations through the Covid-19 crisis is very welcomed by the sector as a whole, the Council spokeswoman noted, adding: “We have yet to see any details on how and for what it will be used and are uncertain whether there will be a role for local authorities or not.”

“There are huge challenges ahead for venues like the Ardhowen, for arts organisations and for individual artists. We are going to have to adapt and create a ‘new normal’ and this will mean new ways of working,” explained the spokeswoman, noting that delivering activities with social distancing, online, outdoor and smaller scale events will be necessary.

“Beyond this, the arts have a role to play in the recovery process throughout the district, whether its activities that can address social isolation, urban and rural revival or developing content for children and young people to participate in and engage with, and as an economic driver to assist the recovery of the visitor economy,” she said. “Fermanagh and Omagh District Council’s Arts Team wants to work with the community, business, arts organisations and with artists to find and support new ways of working, reconnecting with audiences and, together, ensure that local arts survive and then thrive again,” the spokeswoman for the Council concluded.