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Building Relationships For the Future: Exploring the Unlimited Partner Awards

Our latest round of commissions are currently underway with artists across the UK hard at work researching, developing, and making art, including a number of projects funded by Partner Awards. Unlimited Project Manager Ellie Liddell-Crewe explores this selection and the relationships they’re built around, sharing lessons we’ve learnt along the way…

We love our partners and really value their commitment to working with us. How better to show a commitment to inclusion than putting your own cash on the line and commissioning disabled artists? However, we also appreciate that our partner awards can be confusing from the outside. Why do we work with other organisations in the first place? How do we decide on those partnerships? You can read a bit more about our partners and the decisions we make together in our previous blog — here you can find an update on those relationships as well as read about the feedback we’ve received from our partners as we moved through the selection process and into the direct commissioning stage.

What are Partner Awards?

Partner Awards are a bit different from our standard awards. As well as meeting Unlimited’s standard criteria – work that is disability led, work that demonstrates quality, ambition, and innovation, — each Partner Award has its own additional criterion that is decided by Unlimited and the partner organisation to ensure they are completely relevant to the partner organisation in question and playing to their strengths. This can be art form-, audience-, or geographically specific or it could be a particular theme that fits within the organisations’ values. Some examples of criteria set by this round of partners have included, ‘work that approaches climate change from intersectional perspectives’, ‘creating work aimed at young children for a theatre setting’ and ‘artists must demonstrate an interest in collections and archives relating to health and/or an interest in exploring health-based science and research.’ Each partner’s criteria is unique and helps diversify the range of artists that we award.

Why do we choose specific partners?

We work with an amazing range of partners each time we commission. We look for partner organisations that can help us meet gaps in our portfolio of work, that can attract new artists into the Unlimited fold, organisations that are committed to working inclusively, and which bring expertise we can learn from as we share our knowledge and experience of working with disabled artists.

Why are they important?

Unlimited’s ultimate goal (as daft as it sounds) is to not exist. For Unlimited to not exist, disabled artists would have to be fully embedded into the arts sector. The best way to create systemic change is to start shifting and changing the way organisations think, work, and programme. We know we can’t do it alone, so partner awards are a great way to start doing it together.

What can partners learn?

There is learning all the way through the process, from the start to the end. But what have the partners found to be the best bits? Where have they learnt most?

One said that their best bit was ‘being part of the selection panels and finding out about so many artists we’ve never worked with before who have brilliant ideas.’

All partners are full members of our selection panels, so they find out about everyone who is shortlisted, not just those who are shortlisted for their award. They are also meeting the rest of the panel – always a minimum of 51% disabled people – so it’s a great networking opportunity to meet even more disabled artists, producers, curators, and arts workers.

What are our partners excited about?

It’s always the artists – every commission round we are all astounded by the work disabled artists are making. After the selection process ends, our partners are connected to an amazing artist – or two – and ready to start supporting work to come to fruition: ‘We’re really excited to be working with our selected artist, we think the idea is a really good fit for our public space and something a bit different compared to work we’ve commissioned before for those spaces.’

One of the key strengths in the process is that introduction to fresh thinking and artists that people didn’t previously know: ‘We are really excited about everything. We are unlikely to have come across this new working relationship or collaboration if it hadn’t been for the Unlimited award and we are so much the richer for it.’

2020-2022 partners

Here’s a reminder of who we partnered with for our 2020-2022 awards:

New commissioning process ahead

Alongside becoming an independent organisation, we are changing how we commission, in response to feedback from artists and organisations. For our next round, we will offer two award strands: over £25,000 and under £25,000. The former will be for established artists (to fund full commissions from idea through to realisation, touring/showcasing, socially engaged projects and larger R&D processes); the latter is to fund smaller projects, R&Ds and for emerging artists who are early-career, have yet to make a fully independent work, or haven’t reached large audiences yet.

We still want to make the most of the commissioning funds we have and embed disabled artists in the cultural sector; and we still think we can best do that through working with others. We are moving to an annual commissioning model and our first round will therefore ONLY be for Partner Awards (with partner organisations confirmed in Spring 2022).

We have previously co-commissioned to fill gaps in our programme and that hasn’t changed, for example to prioritise literature for the page, music, outdoor work, work for children and art and tech. We’re particularly keen to chat to partners based in the South West, South East, Midlands, Wales, and Scotland as right now we are we under-represented in those regions.

Do you want to partner with Unlimited?

This means we are on the look-out for new partners that can help us fill those gaps and even if you don’t fill a gap, we are always keen to hear from organisations that may want to partner with us. This autumn, we start conversations with potential partners, in order to agree who might be involved next spring, so we can advertise the awards ready for: an initial deadline in October 2022, decisions in March 2023 and work to be toured and shared in 2023-2024. It’s a detailed and long process to ensure it’s rigorous, yet accessible.

All commissions need to meet Unlimited’s core criteria: disability led, high quality, rooted in innovation and ambition and with a desire to reach audiences. The other criteria comes with each partner organisation and may link to artform, audiences, geography — or something entirely new!

If you think you’d like to start a conversation, please get in touch with me, as I am Unlimited’s lead on partnerships. You can reach me via email at  ellie@artsadmin.co.uk.

FROM THE BLOG