Hearts for the Arts 2021 Shortlist – Sara O’Donnell

Wandsworth Council's Sara O'Donnell has been shortlisted for Best Arts Champion - Local Authority or Cultural Trust Worker in the 2020 Hearts for the Arts Awards

Sara O’Donnell works as Head of Arts and Culture in Wandsworth Council’s arts service, leading a small creative team with passion, care and commitment to the local community, especially to those who are vulnerable and have least access to artists, arts organisations, community projects and businesses.

Under Sara’s leadership, London Borough of Wandsworth brought the arts team back in house, after 3 years of being part of the external Enable mutual trust. In 2020, Sara was asked to work with her team and with local organisations, and individuals, including young people, to consult on and produce a new ten-year arts & culture strategy. Sara has brought in a pilot initiative with Arts Council England, developing a Joint Cultural Needs Assessment framework for the borough and is connecting this with ‘The Local Plan’ to embed culture within defined geographical spaces and put in place the building blocks for embedding culture into the Wandsworth landscape.

Over March and April this year, Sara and her team deftly pivoted the annual Wandsworth Arts Fringe (WAF) to a completely online festival (WAF in your living room) with an extensive and eclectic programme of 132 events from 250 artists. 30,030 people engaged with WAF’s live streamed events over 2 weeks in May 2020. Inclusivity and inclusion were at the heart of the initiative, with the arts service hiring a technician with the relevant software and hardware to support any local group wanting to bring their project online. This meant that local organisations could reduce running costs at the same time as learning new skills. Residents with limited digital access were not forgotten: free creative activity packs by Bounce Theatre and Ubuntu Museum were distributed to 2,100 local families in Roehampton, Earlsfield, Battersea and Nine Elms via foodbanks. WAF in your living room was highlighted as an example of innovative practice by the London Mayor of Culture team and the new local government network; it was also one of five on-line festivals to receive a new special award in recognition of its achievements over Covid-19, as well as being featured on BBC Radio London and various online theatre magazines. Most importantly, it gave Wandsworth’s creative community an opportunity to continue to come together and support each other.

Sara and her team were also instrumental in facilitating the fantastic collaborative effort that went into delivering this year’s ‘Create & Learn Playkits. The Playkits project addressed the digital divide facing families  with little or no access to digital and physical resources during lockdown. So far, in phase one and two, 3500 have been distributed to families identified as being in digital poverty,  and a further phase was planned for over Christmas.

In addition, Sara and her team worked closely with local businesses on the Wandsworth Art & High Street Reopening, which will see copies of residents artwork installed in the public realm across nine of Wandsworth’s high streets.

Sara works with a clarity of purpose to inspire her team to be ambitious, to bring high quality artists and experiences to the borough, and to create ingenious ways to connect creatively on slender resources. Sara has made the arts more visible on Wandworth’s high streets and flown the flag for arts in schools by bringing in crucial partnerships and funding.

What the judges said:

“Sara has overseen and carried out exciting, pragmatic, practical and strategic work, with diverse partnerships, offering practical solutions to overcome digital poverty. Facilitating offline support for vulnerable groups during Covid shows a commitment to real diversity and community.”

“The sheer breadth and depth of Sara’s work is breathtaking. From developing strategic partnerships with education, to unlocking investment through match funding, Sara has worked tirelessly to champion arts and culture in Wandsworth.”