How Club Soda Croydon brings sparkle to disability arts culture

By - Friday 30th May, 2014

Club Soda started as a night club, and ended up as so much more. Oliver Tipper tells the story of an artists’ collective with a difference

Successful opening night for the Pop Artists’ exhibition at Croydon Clocktower, 20th May 2014.
Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

On the evening of Tuesday 20th May, I was proud to be present at the opening of an exhibition of art at Croydon Clocktower in Katharine Street. The artists’ collective is called Pop Artists, and all its members have learning disabilities.

We saw remarkable work by remarkable people. I’m fortunate enough to have been involved with the project behind Pop Artists from its earliest days. It’s called Club Soda, and this is how far we’ve come.

Between 2006 and 2009 I was Audience Development Officer at the Croydon Clocktower in Katharine Street, responsible for drawing in hard-to-reach audiences for our live arts programme. This included specialist programmes for people with learning disabilities and a club night called The Beautiful Octopus Club run by Heart ‘n’ Soul. This was how I came to work with four inspiring people, all of whom have learning disabilities: Chris Close, Hannah Marvelly, Joe Bowen and Julie Brickley.

Each of them had developed new skills through being given opportunities at the club nights. When the Beautiful Octopus ceased operating, all four were united in their enthusiasm to continue the popular club nights at Croydon Clocktower and were brimming with ideas about how to do it. We had a competition to rename the club and invited suggestions on a postcard – and Club Soda was born.

Arttist Delroy Ford with his striking portraits, including an unusual image of Croydon-born icon Kate Moss.
Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission

In our first year, 2009-2010, we received £500 seed funding, which was spent on flyers and staffing. In 2009 the Clocktower had a team of arts staff including technicians and front of house officers. We intended to provide training and learning opportunities for adults with learning disabilities interested in the arts.

So at every Club Soda music event between 2009 and 2011, council-employed arts staff supported participants to run the events themselves. Average attendance was around 200 so there was a lot of work involved and we developed a dedicated and passionate team.

We also expanded, running workshops where people with learning disabilities could try DJing, performing, art, music-making and film-making. That’s how, over the years, several groups have emerged from the workshops programme and we have continued to support and develop these: Big White Light Theatre Company, Soda Crew DJs, The Carbonators, Bubble Theory Media and of course Pop Artists.

We have worked with well over 500 participants and support approximately 30 artists with learning disabilities including DJs, musicians, actors, media artists and visual artists. Over 4,000 people have attended our events.

We have found venues where learning-disabled artists can develop creatively

When, in 2011, cutbacks resulted in Club Soda losing the support of the Clocktower team, the group left central Croydon and ran three successful music events at Stanley Halls. However, access for disabled audiences and the wider community was harder than in the town centre, so in 2012 we began to search for longer-term central venues where artists with learning disabilities could develop creatively again and audiences could feel at home. In Matthews Yard and Bad Apple we found these, along with Rockbottom, Beanies and the new Museum of Croydon space.

We are fortunate to have some wonderful volunteers who help at our events. We also refer to some of our participants as volunteers since they play an active role in supporting others to grow and learn new skills. Volunteers tell us how they feel privileged to witness the personal development of Club Soda participants in terms of their well-being, confidence and maturity as artists. Some participants have gained college places and jobs and we are proud to have played a part in helping them fulfil their potential.

Artist Robert Lovejoy and his paintings of Croydon buildings.
Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

Club Soda aims to fulfil the artistic potential of people with learning disabilities – that’s why we didn’t stop at nightclubs! I feel strongly about equality – this is what personally drives me, alongside a wish to create great art alongside people with learning disabilities. We continually meet people who are very talented in the arts and we simply need to support them!

I personally discovered a real affinity with people who have learning disabilities and the enjoyment I get from this is why I have become dedicated to this area of work.

I would like Club Soda to take pride of place as one of Croydon’s leading arts organisations for many years to come and hope we can play a part in making Croydon a more enjoyable place to live for everyone who enjoys arts, clubbing and leisure.

We want to establish Club Soda as a sustainable business

We hope to raise money via crowdfunding, since we know how successful this has been for other projects in Croydon. We want to establish Club Soda as a sustainable business, delivering services whilst keeping quality art made by people with learning disabilities at the forefront.

In 2013/14 we began two new projects. Soda Beat is an integrated live music night intended to give a platform to learning disabled musicians to perform in a mainstream venue. Soda Stream, on Croydon Radio, is a live show about everything abled and disabled in Croydon.

The arts organisation Turf Projects will be a new artistic associate for us in 2014/15 and one we are looking forward to immensely. Right now our partners include Drunken Chorus, a young company which creates thoughtful theatre and live performance, and Constant Flux, which is pioneering live music made by musicians with learning disabilities.

Simply taking part in projects like Club Soda can change lives. I believe the inclusion of learning-disabled people enriches the whole community. I hope that many in Croydon will come to see the Pop Artists exhibition and recognise the exciting artistic potential of those who have been excluded in the past.

The Pop Artists exhibition is free in the foyer of Croydon Clocktower, Katharine Street, CR9, six days per week until October 2014. For more information call 020 8253 1030.

Oliver Tipper

Oliver Tipper

Oliver was born in Croydon in 1979. As a younger man he studied ballet and acting but it was the opportunities to experience different cultures whilst travelling in India and Canada which had the biggest influence over his future work. Oliver has been the Arts Participation Officer at Croydon Council since 2008.

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