A photograph of an atmospheric, flat landscape in which a woman stands. She wears a dark dress and has her hair tied up. She is stood on rocks, behind her is the sea going off into the horizon.
No Place Like (Flat) Holm - Circe's Call. Image credit: Gina Biggs (SheWolf)

Delving deeper into the shortlist

After the publication of the most recent Unlimited shortlist, Jo Verrent, senior producer, digs in to uncover the themes and forms of work being proposed…

Unlimited aims to support work that artists want to make – it doesn’t have to be about disability or impairment but, equally, it can be. That choice has to be the artists and not ours. Given that, it’s fascinating to pause for a moment and consider both the subject matter and stretch to artistic form that disabled artists are proposing and see how things have shifted through the years.

In this shortlist, it’s no surprise to see the number of works proposed focused on pushing for awareness, reconciliation, and change – on climate justice (such as the ideas of Cheryl Beer, D-Fuse, Flow&Echo, Andrew Peter Howe), on social justice for disabled people (Dolly Sen, Touretteshero, Dr Paul Anthony Darke, Sophie Woolley, Bobby Baker’s Daily Life Ltd., Sheila Hill, Rose Sergent, Thomas Ryalls, Al Davison, Jack Hunter, Lindsay Oliver), and in relation to BLM and wider experiences of racism (Christopher Samuel, Rachel Nwokoro, Reality Productions, SuAndi, Estabrak, Mahandra Patel/Kadence Music, Ayesha Jones, Jameisha Prescod).

Increasingly, artists are pushing away from the supposed ‘simplicity’ of art form boundaries, with a record number of artists selecting combined arts to describe their work (32%) and finding unusual spaces and places to create and share work – including two in swimming pools (Rachael Young, Aidan Moesby).

It’s exciting to see more work being proposed that involves co-creation and reimagines the participant/audience relationship in new and different ways (Two Destination Language, Parade of Horribles, Juan delGado, Lilith Cooper, Emily Beaney), works that are designed – fully or in part – for the outdoor realm (Jack Dean, Mind the gap, Rinkoo Barpaga), and based on humour (Laurence Clark, Tom Wentworth). We have a range of ideas that focus on children and young people (Second Hand Dance, SLiDE, Caroline Wilkes, Graeae Theatre, Sonia Allori, Lucy C Hayward, Clare and Lesley Disabled Dance Artists) or is based on them (Raquel Meseguer / Unchartered Collective). All of these have been under-represented within Unlimited’s portfolio in the past.

There are also a number of works exploring access (Translating Nature, Rachel Bagshaw, Lilac Yosiphon, Rachel Cherry and Sung Im Her, John Kelly), or that delve into the unique aesthetic or perspective given by specific impairments (Aby Watson, Sherrall Morris, Jo Hauge, Hayley Williams -Hindle, SYNTAX ERROR, Sam Metz, Jonny Cotsen, Hassun El-Zafar, Stephanie Back), medication (Clara Weale) or access equipment (Joseph Wilk).

Whilst a record number (68%) of the artists and companies on the shortlist are new to Unlimited and have never been previously supported or shortlisted by us before, it’s also gratifying to see artists who have previously been funded as ‘emerging’ now gaining a place on the R&D shortlist (such as Sonny Nwachukwu and Ellen Renton).

Even though we will be commissioning work to complete in 2022, there is a percentage of work for the web and/or considering safe Covid-19 working practices and expanding the notion of audience through doing so. This includes online installations and podcasts (Trigger Stuff, Felix Peckitt, SheWolf) and zines (Alana Tyson).

The work supported by Unlimited is known to be eclectic, and this year we have projects shortlisted based on tattoos (Chisato Minamimura), blood (Oluwatobiloba Adebajo), the impact of adverse childhoods (Demi Nandhra), brothers (Vijay Patel), recipes (Rhine Bernardino), the Stone of Madness (Rebecca Jagoe), Belfast’s peace lines (Ailis Ni Riain), Frida Kahlo (Gareth Churchill), a fictional birthplace (Flannery O’kafka), copper (Laura Fisher), frogs (Jack Foulks),  and the one exploring a mix of rural isolation, mental illness, transness, cars and the musical magic of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Octagon).

If there is anyone out there assuming disabled artists can be stereotyped as creating one type of work – just read the shortlist for yourself and change your mind!

Changing in the future

It is impossible to talk about the successful shortlist applicants without mentioning the 392 artists and companies who did not make it in. The process this time was no different to any other time, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. As Unlimited transitions into an independent organisation we are looking at how we might commission better in the future. Providing access support is standard, and this year we have already spent over £8000 supporting people to apply at EoI stage and redeveloped our monitoring to track intersectionality in applicants. But how else could we commission?

We have a growing range of ideas to consider, gathered from events such as Reimaging Arts Commissioning, which we ran with Bagri Foundation and our strategic co-commission with Siobhan Davies Dance, where shortlisted artists were financially supported to develop full proposals and got to pitch them live to a panel. This focus will be part of the new independent organisation’s planning and development.

Our standard process has been the same for the last 4 rounds. We have a two stage process to limit the amount of work artists have to do at this stage. The Expression of Interest form asks for a 500 word description of an idea – no budget, no timetable, no project plan. Panellists read all Expression of Interest proposals in their strand and choose 20 or so that they feel best match the criteria and do not comment on the rest. Therefore, staff do not know why some are chosen and some are not. There are many, many, many brilliant proposals that are not on the shortlist. We signal this from the start and make it clear in advance the numbers of applications we receive and the numbers we are likely to be able shortlist.

To read each Expression of Interest application and give feedback – assuming 30 minutes only – it would take someone 28 days, working 7 hours a day, to send 392 responses.

Only those on the shortlist complete a full form, and they have access to one hour of support from someone on the Unlimited team, in addition to access support.  They also become part of our alumni and so may benefit from training and development opportunities, and this year, our micro-grants. At the next stage, we offer feedback as the panel will have discussed the application as a group. Here, we can give detailed comments about the panel’s discussion in writing and in person as preferred.

This year there was a 70% increase in applications from artists and companies applying in a wide variety of different and difficult circumstances. It is understandable that some unsuccessful applicants are upset about the lack of feedback at EOI stage. It is equally reassuring that a number of unsuccessful applicants have written to us with understanding – of the nature of any competitive opportunity, the pressures on the panellists and the system and context as a whole. Everyone at Unlimited and all our funders and partners want to thank everyone who applied. Your work is vital and valued and we know that, however short an Expression of Interest form is, it takes energy, time and capacity to complete.

Sadly, with any competitive process, there will be ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses at different stages. All applicants who didn’t make the shortlist were provided with some next steps – direct email contacts for Scotland and Wales, a series of events to support applications to other funds with Arts Council England and notification of other funds that were open including the BBC Culture in Quarantine commission opportunity which has a deadline in January 2021.