Clara Giraud has been Project Manager for Unlimited at Artsadmin since January 2014, when Shape Arts and Artsadmin embarked in managing what was to be a three year commissioning programme. Six years later, Unlimited has grown to include a wider number of artists and partners than we ever could have hoped for, and Clara is heading on to new adventures.
It’s been a whirlwind. Six years, and a lot of growing, questioning, getting things wrong and setting things right. As I head out the door, starting a new role with Mayor of London’s Culture Team, and doing part-time freelancing, it’s a great opportunity to take stock and look back at the highlights. Four open calls for new commissions by disabled artists, four Southbank Centre Unlimited Festivals, five international placements, countless conferences/networking/showcasing events, nine international collaborations, hundreds of contracts, and hours of conversations. A lot has happened! And lot has been learned. Here are my top takeaways:
1. Take risks
One of the most thrilling things at Unlimited has been to witness the selection panels make decisions on which projects the programme will support. I’ve observed it from the side lines, and have revelled in the surprise of the projects that made it through an extremely thorough selection process, and went on to grow in the most exciting ways. In 2014, Unlimited gave a small research and development grant to Touretteshero, an artist not known to the theatre world. A few months after receiving the award, it transpired that Touretteshero were not only developing their Backstage in Biscuitland project with the grant, but also fundraised to finish the show and take it to Edinburgh. We worried – will they be ready? Are they rushing this? Soon enough, Jess Thom was taking over Edinburgh stages by storm. Backstage in Biscuitland launched waves questioning who theatres are for, that are still rippling to this day. Years later, the panel awarded Noemi Lakmaier funding for her Cherophobia project – Noemi would float in mid air for up to 48 hours, suspended by helium balloons. Due to the live-art nature of the work, it would only ever happen once, live streamed around the world. Such an expensive and large scale project is rare to see being majorly backed by just one funder. But Noemi flew, and the art work not only moved me to tears, it also resonated so powerfully that it was invited to be repeated again at Sydney Opera House in 2018 and in Berlin in 2019. Again and again, this commissioning programme has demonstrated the importance of risks, investing in the unknown, giving generously to back even the most extravagant ideas, and trusting that if the right elements are in place it will be the best of rewards when the art goes to new places and transforms more people than ever expected.
2. Resilience and innovation
Working with disabled artists and colleagues has been a lesson in resilience. Adapting mainstream working models has been core to many of the projects undergone by Unlimited – how does one embed rest in a rehearsal process, horizontality in an administrative task, multiplicity of languages in a collaboration, or music in a deaf-led choreography? By innovating. Searching, trying, failing, discovering, trying again, and bringing new solutions. I’ve had the privilege to witness disabled colleagues’ resilience, and the constant innovation accompanied by it. I revelled in new ways of working, in challenging the norm, and taking pleasure in finding an alternative. Certainly, it’s not the easy route, but it reaps benefits, and it’s one that much of the rest of the arts world (and beyond) has a lot to learn from.
3. Love is in the details
As an artist-focused programme, Unlimited works hard to be transparent, and to adapt to the needs of artists and their work. While I would have comfortably sat back and rolled out the same paperwork for the commissions call out every other year, I was challenged to question everything we had and re-work it to make it better. It can always be better. If in doubt, consult those concerned. It is through this method that we lightened some clunky processes, clarified lines of communications with artists, worked fluidly to make payments as fit best, and adapted to work methods to be more human. It’s so easy to fall into a world of administrative processes when one runs a funding programme – keeping the human stories and personalities at the heart of our decision making has been key to being truly supportive to artists and their work.
4. Access is as simple as good hosting
The question of access provision is daunting to many people. The idea that they do not know what is best and they might get it wrong, means that people are left baffled as to how to approach the question. My take-away from working with Unlimited? Relax. It’s going to be OK. You know how to do it – it’s just about being a good host. A good host considers a guest’s full experience, and adapts to changing circumstances. A good host will listen, ask for advice, and be flexible within their offer. It’s nothing you haven’t done before when you had your grandma over for tea! I took this thinking to the next level and developed the Demystifying Access pack for performance makers, this was a great way to tackle the questions of access in the world I was coming from, bringing some straightforward solutions to colleagues working on tight schedules and budgets.
5. Partnerships are enriching
Unlimited is embedded in partnerships. Run by two very different organisations, I’ve had the opportunity to delve into Shape Arts and Artsadmin’s working cultures, and learn more about myself in the process. I also had the pleasure to shape and manage partnerships with Unlimited allies, from co-commissioning opportunities to residencies and events. Each partnership brought challenges and opportunities, through invaluable exchange and learning. Top take-aways include the importance of meeting people in person at the start of every collaboration – no matter how small-, honesty and transparency throughout a project, and not being afraid of re-focusing a project.
I’m so excited to be taking all this learning into my new roles, and to continue advocating for access and diversity across the arts world and beyond. My curiosity is guiding me to do more work linked to how we can use the arts as a tool to find solutions to live better together in cities, so I’ll be exploring new territories with Mayor of London and through my freelance work. You can visit my website if you wish to contact me, follow me on twitter for work-related musings, and track my environmental explorations on Instagram.
Thanks for the journey, Unlimited!