Responsible for evaluating Unlimited’s output since 2016, Alan Dix and Jenny Harris from 509 Arts fill us in on how this process has informed their understanding of the programme, our commissions, and the arts sector as a whole.
For the last five years 509 Arts – Alan Dix and Jenny Harris – have had the privilege of assessing the artistic quality of the Unlimited commissions programme. We’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country to see work presented in galleries, in festivals, in fields, and in clubs. We’ve enjoyed vogue balls and performance parties, samba carnivals and intimate one person shows, radical live art and meditative installations. And we’ve written about what we’ve seen and tried to make sense of it all as a radical catalyst within the UK arts landscape.
What started out in 2013 as a commissioning programme run by Shape Arts and Artsadmin has grown into a nationally significant platform that has profoundly changed the reality of funding, support, and profile for disabled artists. It has been managed by an impressive team led by Jo Verrent, and it has genuinely made a difference. And being immersed in the work of Unlimited, its artists and commissions has changed us too. At the end of our time as evaluators, we thought it would be good to reflect on what we know now that we didn’t know then.
We need disruptors
As it journeys towards being a standalone organisation, Unlimited is perhaps commissioning its most exciting, challenging, and unexpected work to date. Along the way, it has maintained momentum and relevance by taking risks and mining its own data to extend reach and the breadth of artists it works with. It has championed the new and radical, and embraced intersectionality whilst funding an increasingly diverse range of art forms. A lot of the work we’ve seen has been edgy, experimental, and unboundaried and the programme has been all the better for it.
Of course, this reflects a wider and welcome process of change throughout the creative sector, but in a post-Covid world, we will need disruptors and challengers like Unlimited more than ever.
Simple and kind is possible
Alongside this has been a more considered and inclusive approach to commissioning, one that is beneficial both to the artists and Unlimited. A tiered process – with main, international, R&D, and emerging artist strands now established alongside a series of strategic partnership commissions – has translated into a freedom to take risks with artists, concepts, and art forms.
The first stage Expression of Interest sees shortlisted artists receiving support to develop their applications and the opportunity to become part of the Unlimited alumni (accessing training and support as part of a wider network). This model has set the tone for a new kind of funding process, and one that exists in sharp contrast to the stripped down, remote, and less supportive examples of other commissioning schemes. Without it, the arresting work of Kristina Veasey may never have become the potent, in-demand visual art that it has become. Unlimited does not use the harsh binary of success or failure used by other funding schemes. As a consequence, we have tracked the journeys that projects can take and evaluated their eventual realisation.
Advantages of arm’s-length funding
It’s clear that Unlimited has been able to take risks in a way that its primary funder, Arts Council England, cannot. Where a proposal has had within it the spark of an idea – unexpected, unusual, unique – Unlimited has often committed where other funders may not have been able to. Yes, there have been projects that have failed, but a supportive culture and an investment in producers has meant that these have been few and far between. This has often resulted in work that is unexpected, unconventional, and surprising. Within the highly structured world of arts funding that we inhabit today this is a refreshing and timely reminder of why we do what we do.
Creative access is best
Almost by definition, Unlimited has access at its heart. There has been a noticeable shift in the approach of artists to integrating access into their creative process and planning so that by the time it is presented it is embedded and complementary. But access is not a perfect science – the complexities of live performance mean that every event needs to revisit its approach to access to ensure audiences are given a valid experience. Unlimited has made sure that this journey is imaginative and fulfilling, with a degree of integration that makes the access toolkit a part of the creative experience.
From the margins to the mainstream
‘Disability Arts’ should not be seen as something marginal, never to be seen on the main stage of a regional theatre or gallery. Whilst initiatives such as Ramps on the Moon have been effective in making this point, there is still a long way to go. Unlimited is on a mission – along with many other organisations – to ensure that the creativity of disabled artists does not become siloed and labelled as minority interest.
Whilst events like Without Walls, Dadafest, and Unlimited festival at Southbank Centre and Tramway are vital platforms for profiling new work, disabled artists still struggle to create relationships with venues and touring partners. Unlimited recognised the need for cultural places and spaces throughout the UK to be proactive and supportive of emerging artists and a growing network of 200+ venue and promoter allies is testament to this. The Unlimited brand is now a quality mark within the sector and undoubtedly helps artists to amplify their work and generate more traction, but the need to convert kind words into contracts on a continuing basis still remains.
New kinds of conversation
Unlimited has enabled new kinds of conversations to take place in new settings. Whilst disabled artists will necessarily continue to explore the social issues and inequalities they continue to experience through their art, Unlimited has increasingly supported work made through the lens of disability but which is not about disability. Although companies such as Graeae have been doing this sort of thing for a long time to great effect, Unlimited has unlocked the conversation through the proliferation of artists and companies it has been able to support.
Many of them are new and they have often brought a refreshing take on things. We are desperate to know what Brownton Abbey will do next or where the personal politics of Oozing Gloop’s Commucracy will take them post lockdown. Unlimited does not have to bring structure to the conversations that its funding supports, its job is to fertilise them, to follow them, and to see where they take us.
International pulling power
The rising international prominence of D/deaf and disabled artists is an ongoing and very real outcome of Unlimited. The reach of the programme is impressive and before lockdown Unlimited-funded projects were touring to venues and festivals across the globe. For the Paraorchestra to tour to the Perth Festival was a remarkable achievement and underscores the internationalism of the disabled artist. In the new world of post-lockdown and climate emergency, international touring may never be quite the same, but cross-border dialogue and the sharing of experience must be maintained and strengthened.
Disabled artists are quick to take advantage of new technologies if they are given the opportunity. During lockdown Haptic Fishtank explored the use of augmented reality to enhance the texture of the creative experience and in the process opened up a new area for research and imaginative play. We saw The Voice of the Unicorn create a shared digital world that crossed continents and Felix Peckitt’s playful sonic adaptations of everyday objects. New technology is almost by definition a work in progress and these pieces allowed artists to explore their potential without any assumption as to the outcome. Too often, the parameters of funding mean that this kind of imaginative risk taking is beyond the reach of most artists. To see it laid out for us all to enjoy and explore was a privilege.
There’s more than one dimension
One of the more significant changes we have observed in the four years of our evaluation has been Unlimited’s embrace of intersectionality, which has had a powerful impact on the way Unlimited (along with many others) looks at the artist at the heart of the creative process. No-one is just ‘disabled’ in the same way they are not just ‘gay’ or ‘working class.’ An artist who is disabled also has a background and a unique set of life experiences. They live in a world that is not boundaried by terminology and simple description. Disability is just one aspect of an individual’s complex life, and intersectionality is a way of recognising the unique understanding this brings to the creative process. This is much more than a question of terminology, and for us it brought a very different perspective to the ways in which we evaluated the Unlimited commissions.
Being part of Unlimited’s creative journey to independence has sharpened our thinking as arts producers and makers. It has been a deeply enriching and valuable experience that has asked us to look at the work of Unlimited artists and their commissions from many different perspectives and at times challenged the ways we interrogate the creative process. Unlimited is now about to move on to a new phase in its development. So far, the organisation has had an extraordinary capacity to respond, adapt, and surprise. Let’s hope these capabilities remain and that Unlimited continues to be relevant to the generations and audiences of the future in a world that is changing faster than we could ever possibly have imagined.