No Boundaries Logo reading, A symposium on the role of arts and culture

No Boundaries: A Symposium on the Role of Arts and Culture

No Boundaries is the industry conference for the Arts, museums and libraries, with a focus on presenting questions and challenging new ideas on the role of arts and culture, finding positive approaches to influence change and supporting the sector’s growth in a world of unknowns. 450 delegates from across the Arts and culture sector will attend No Boundaries with an array of national and international contributors who speak to five themes relevant to issues facing the industry: Can we exercise freedom of expression? Are we nurturing tomorrow’s talent? How does the money flow? Can we do things differently? What does success look like?

Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited, contributes to this year’s No Boundaries Symposium Catch the video here

Before I start on what I do differently, I want to explain why. Why do I think there is a need to radically change the way in which we make, fund, develop and deliver the arts in the UK?

I feel that the arts ‘industry’ is in a loop making work that appeals only to itself. Work that is made for and by the same type of people, with the same kinds of tastes. Work that excludes pretty much anyone outside of that mould, that is shown in spaces and forms that exclude pretty much anyone outside of that mould, in an industry that has systemically excluded anyone outside of that mould for years. And we wonder why ‘new audiences’ are so hard to come by?

In April this year, the Warwick Commission Report reported that:

“the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse 8% of society make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatregoers and gallery visitors”

And their findings are not an anomaly – Purple Seven have shown similar in relation to performing arts, the Audience Agency also.

So the core of our arts audience makes up 8% of the population – the richest, most educated, least diverse 8%. And guess who is making that work that they are lapping up? Yup, it’s them too. Basically the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse artists, writers, directors, employed by the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse curators, commissioners, board members and funded often by the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse funders and supporters.

Just a quick note, disabled people don’t even get a mention in the statistics at this helicopter level as we are ‘statistically insignificant’ in number despite making up between 18-22% of the population.

And this is after years of schemes, positive actions, training courses, development programmes and other diversity initiatives. None of which have succeeded in really turning the tide.

So what is the solution? If all of that didn’t work, what does?

At its most simple, the people making the work must change, the people programming the work must change, the spaces where we show and share the work must change and we must open up discussion and debate on what ‘the work’ is anyway. The only way that’s going to happen is if we commit to doing things differently.

In 2013, I decided to do one thing different each day – I tweeted and set up a weekly blog – DoDifferentDaily. I ate new foods, worked in new ways, tried new hobbies, met new people. What did I learn? That doing something new is incredibly exciting, immensely rewarding, a huge learning opportunity but also really, really scary. And some of the most terrifying things were going to new places – a football match, a mosque, a rally on the other side of my own political leanings. New can be terrifying. But it’s where we have to go to change things.

Last week, I went to a performance at a new theatre. I hated it. Everyone knew everyone else, I knew no one. They knew the rules – where the bar was, the well hidden toilets, the fact you got a playing card and not a ticket. And that’s all before I began the ‘I’m deaf and need to sit at the front’ thing. I felt embarrassed, isolated and old – the show was great but the whole experience was awful. Is this really still how we welcome anyone new?

And if it’s that alienating for ‘new’ audiences, what’s it like as an artist trying to break through into a sector, especially one in which you are still perceived as ‘different’?

I’m senior producer for Unlimited, a commissions programme for disabled artists. We are trying to break down some of the walls that stop disabled artists getting the recognition they deserve within the cultural sector.

We select 9 or 10 artists or companies every couple of years to make and tour a new work. We are called Unlimited, and that’s our aim – not to limit artists, but to showcase the widest range of work we can – Just because you are a disabled artist, it doesn’t mean you have to make a particular type of work.

Our ‘different’ if you like, is the artists we support – traditionally disabled artists have had a pretty hard time breaking into the industry – but we also do the whole selection thing differently.

Our aim, when we select works, is the same as everyone else – to choose a diverse range of excellent work – work that is just crying out to be made.

We have a selection panel – but difference number one is that 5 places on that selection panel are for independents – people who applied to join the selection panel who have no stake in the work. Not people we have chosen cos they think in the same way we do, not a token ‘one’ who might have a dissenting voice. Nope, nearly half the voting members of the panel are entirely independent, and if they are freelancers, then they are paid to be there. And it makes a difference.

Difference number two – is about the balance of power. The majority of our panel are disabled people themselves. Sounds simple and obvious, if we are selecting work that is disabled-led, then the process for making those decisions needs to be disabled-led too. And this means that some of our key funders – Creative Scotland and Arts Council of Wales, for example, donate their voting place to disabled artists from those countries to ensure we reflect the opinions from the sector bottom up – not top down.

And difference three – I don’t vote. None of the staff working on the programme do. The work we support isn’t my ‘choice’ – I’m not interested in simply commissioning work that I like – that’s limiting. I think it’s that attitude that has led to the problem we currently have – when people think their opinions are the only ones that count. It means such a narrow range of work being shown. For me, work can be excellent without me liking it. My tastes are simply my tastes – and my tastes aren’t indicative of what a wide range of other people want to see. Where does the arrogance come from when someone thinks they have the only ‘vision’, and everyone has to agree with them?

Our panel has diverse views, and I see this as a good thing. They argue a lot, we rarely have consensus but we often have majority, they take risks, they force us to take risks, and I often think ‘what the hell have they chosen that for?’ – and these are all good things.

Unlimited supported Jess Thom and her company Touretteshero to make their first piece of work – Backstage in Biscuit Land. On paper it was a risk – a show principally performed by someone who says ‘biscuit’ spontaneously 16,000 times a day – and ‘cat’, and ‘Aladdin’ and quite a lot about animal sex almost as frequently. Someone who might have a ‘tic-ing fit’ on stage and have to resort to an emergency script delivered by her co-performer until Jess comes round and is able to continue… It’s been one of our most successful pieces. It played at the Barbican last week and is at Soho this. Its done Brighton Festival, Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe – twice. It was chosen by the BBC to have a special broadcast version this November – Broadcast from Biscuit Land.

First piece of work. Radically different ‘type’ of performer from the so called ‘norm’. Big risk. And the result? Consistently delighting established audiences and bringing in new audiences to everywhere that takes the show. See, its not just about pleasing one set of people or another – it can be about appealing to both.

And that’s not the only risk we’ve funded – Birds of Paradise’s outrageously rude Wendy Hoose, Vital Xposure’s Let Me Stay offering a tender yet humorous take on living with Alzheimer’s, Richard Butchin’s video installation 213 things about me – looking at both autism and suicide. And we’ve more ‘risks’ in development – Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide: The Musical, Cameron Morgan’s large scale TV Classics depicting TV through the decades, for galleries and bill boards.

And most of the works are getting both critical and public acclaim – both of which are vital. Wendy Hoose was in the Made in Scotland selection this year, we had two more in the British Council Showcase, Cameron’s just heard he’s got into Glasgow International Art Festival 2016 on the same bill as Damien Hurst… and so it goes. Yet we still get some programmers say that work by disabled artists is ‘niche’ and not for them or their audiences.

Unlimited’s work is not just about the commissions – we are pushing venues and promoters to do things differently too. Our Impact programme means we can work on supporting that, working on new ways to provide access, on issues and debates, with young artists and activists, and sharing the lessons we – and they – are learning.

I’m not for a moment saying we have everything right – far from it. But am I saying we are trying to take risks. We are taking actions that are conscious and deliberate to diversify the range of people whose work gets seen, diversify the range of people who select that work, and to get others to do things differently too – and that its working. It is not an accident, and it is not from simply having the desire to change things noted down somewhere in an action plan.

Doing things differently does work, but you have to do something different, not just ‘want to do something different’. The secret is in the doing.

I said earlier that we have to do something different. That means us, the 8%. ‘We’ are the ones who must change until the demographic of those making work, those in the audience for the work, matches the demographic of the society in which we live.

Catch the live stream here