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Improving life, learning and health

Posted by: Richard Abbey
Improving life, learning and health supporting image

There’s perhaps no better person to explain the amazing work done by Doncaster arts charity, darts, than one of its directors and deputy chief executive, Sophy Sylvester. We spoke to her to find out more.

Tell us about darts.

We are Doncaster’s award-winning participatory arts charity, creating art with people in Doncaster to improve life, learning and health. We make high-quality, inclusive, creative experiences across the borough of Doncaster. Our programmes are open to everyone, particularly those who have the least access to the arts. We are known nationally for our pioneering approaches that have made a positive difference to thousands of Doncaster residents’ lives.

We work in schools, nurseries and family hubs across the borough as well as at our home, The Point, a purpose-built arts centre in the middle of Doncaster. We have a light-filled gallery, creative workshop and studio spaces, a café and gardens. Most of our opportunities are free, or very low cost. 


What were the origins of the initiative?

darts’ journey began in 1990 as a small project, initiated with funding from Doncaster Council and Yorkshire Arts. Our early days were spent tucked away on the first floor of Bentley Library. A dancer (Karen Sellers) and a trainee administrator (Karen Smith) began work, bringing artists to schools, surgeries, community centres, care homes and venues across the borough. Their brief was to develop access to, and participation in the arts throughout the Doncaster borough.


You became a charity in 1996, how did that impact you?

We became both a registered charity and company limited by guarantee in 1996. The change meant that we had greater opportunities to secure funding and make more of an impact locally. 


How has darts developed since?

It’s hard to get down on paper just how much the organisation has developed, and how many projects we have delivered in the last 33 years! We have grown in size as a team and have learnt a huge amount in the process. We have survived and thrived, despite an international financial crisis, a decade of public sector austerity, a global pandemic, and cost of living crisis, and we all remain so passionate, and proud of what we have achieved. 

All our work is person-led and we shape our programmes directly around the needs of Doncaster residents, adapting our offer as environment or needs change.  In an average year we now engage between 55-60,000 participations across our programmes, attract people from every Doncaster Ward and welcome 40,000 visitors to The Point.

All our work is evidence based and we monitor and evaluate difference made to ensure our provision is fit for purpose. Recently we have been working with Arc Research (Sheffield Hallam University) to gain more insight into improvements in mental health and wellbeing generated by participation in positive creative activity. Initial findings prove that sustained engagement in creative activity builds confidence, enables motivation, and supports participants to make new relationships. 

We have also been working with Leeds University on our Dance On programme with inactive over 55s. Recent analysis showed that the prevalence of participants classed as active increased from 25 per cent at baseline to 55 per cent at 12 months, there has been a significant increase in sustained physical activity and a marked decrease in fear of falling.  


And you purchased The Point in 1997 – tell us more?

We took on the incredible opportunity of purchasing a building of our own in 1997 with the help of National Lottery and European Regional Development Funds. After lots of hard work and innovative thinking about the spaces, The Point opened in May 1998. 

In 2007, we had the opportunity to expand into the building next door and created a beautiful, double height contemporary gallery space.

The Point is the only Makaton Friendly venue in Doncaster.?Makaton is a language programme using signs and symbols to help people to communicate. Our Director (Arts & Health) is a Makaton tutor and trains our artists and front of house staff. The Point is one of a small number of Doncaster venues with a Changing Places facility. The Changing Places Campaign supports people who cannot use standard accessible toilets. Our staff are Dementia Friends trained and we are a Breastfeeding Friendly venue. 


Can anyone visit The Point?

Absolutely! We welcome anyone to come along and spend time in the building – whether or not you are here to take part in activity. Entrance to the building and gallery is always free, you can meet friends in the café or just spend time reading or working in one of the comfy spaces. There’s free Wi-Fi and a friendly atmosphere.

Have your visitors shaped the darts experience?

We are always responding to feedback from our visitors, and have made a number of significant changes to improve people’s experiences. We have added stairs and a new room in the gallery, improved the gallery garden, created a new outdoor/indoor space in the Garden Room, added the Changing Places toilet, upgraded the café with beautiful shapes and colours, invited lettering artist Oli Frape to paint poet Ian McMillan’s 30th birthday poem for darts onto our walls, and most recently, reconfigured the entrance to improve disabled access, signage and welcome, as well as working with Janet Wood, Ian McMillan, Oli Frape and Eleven Design to create story panels to mark significant memories from The Point’s history. 


How many artists do you work with?

A long list of inspiring and amazing artists. We have a trusted pool of experienced and skilled Core and Freelance artists who we work with regularly – musicians, photographers, visual artists, sculptors, singers, dancers and drama workers - who we know will provide the best possible experiences for our participants. We are always looking to diversify and broaden this team to make sure we can respond to the needs of our community, and be representative of Doncaster residents. 


You must have lots of volunteers too?

We do have a core team of fantastic volunteers who support the groups. Volunteering alongside skilled artists in different art forms is a fantastic way to gain meaningful experience for those who are developing their practice or looking for a career in the creative sector. 



How does it feel to make such a difference?

Incredible! It’s what keeps us going. As a staff team, the ability to walk downstairs from the office and talk directly to people who are keen to tell you all about the difference we have made in their lives is fantastic. People just inspire us to keep going, keep fundraising to make sure we can continue to make a difference in the lives of as many people as possible. 


Do you have to actively source funding? Where does this come from?

We literally wouldn’t be able to do anything without funding, and I spend most of my time writing applications to trusts and foundations, public funders like the Lottery or Local Authorities. We get some core funding from Arts Council England and City of Doncaster Council, but everything else is raised through fundraising. Recently we have been testing new ways of securing donations from local businesses – so if you are interested in funding one of our programmes, do get in touch.


What are your plans for the future? How can darts develop further?

We have a Business Plan for 2023-26 and a brilliant Board of Trustees and staff team who are driving us forward. We won’t be sitting still, and will continue to use our passion, drive and determination to create art with people in Doncaster to improve life, learning and health. 


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