Sculpture of a black frying pan with eggs and sausages. To the left, a pizza with sausage and mushrooms
Unlimited-commissioned artist Cameron Morgan’s work at Project Ability

Ensuring Learning Disabled Artists Take the Lead

Unlimited commissions disability-led work; for us this means disabled artists take the creative lead on projects and have full creative control, and often this might means disabled and non-disabled people working in collaboration. So how do artists and organisations ensure that these partnerships, project plans and evaluations are truly disability led?

We spoke to two organisations working with learning disabled artists – ActionSpace in London and Project Ability in Glasgow – to find out more…

Unlimited: What does disability-led mean to your organisation?

ActionSpace: At ActionSpace we aim to create an ​environment where learning disabled artists ​are able to develop their artistic practices in whatever way they choose. We work with artists with a broad range of learning difficulties;​ a large majority have​ profound and multiple learning difficulties and complex support needs, and ​many have limited verbal communication ​skills​.

​This means that we have to use a range of methods to understand our artists’ wishes and needs, in order to ensure we are fully artist-led. The Artist Facilitator / Artist relationship, which builds over the time they work together, is key to this.

Our facilitators are very experienced and ​intuitively ​find ways to communicate with ​the artists’ in their studio groups. They represent the artists’ voices in all areas of our planning, from the overall programme to individual projects and initiatives.  We continually monitor and evaluate all areas of our work, including collecting feedback from the artists, their families and support teams on an on-going basis. We also support two of our studio artists to contribute to the strategic planning and governance of the organisation as Members of the Board of Trustees.

​​Project Ability: To Project Ability “disability-led” means the learning disabled artist is driving the project, and their skill and expertise is to the fore. Learning disabled artists will almost certainly be working in a supported studio and their relationship with the studio facilitators and managers is central to how the artist is represented. The studio will already have strategies in place to overcome issues such as support, access, health and communication. These strategies are reached in consultation with the artist and their care and support agencies and are open to constant change. When someone needs support to live the life they choose this extends to their arts practice.

Unlimited: How do you ensure that the artist’s idea and intention is communicated in funding applications and project evaluations?

 ActionSpace: We use a lot of multimedia to document our sessions, including images and video, which we can use to feed into funding applications – this is often the best way to bring across our artist’s ideas. The core team spends time at our sessions to gain an understanding of the artist’s wants and needs, and our facilitators send us weekly detailed session reports that we are able to refer to and clearly see lines of progression and artistic development​, which we can then communicate in applications and evaluations.

​Being keen to strengthen our monitoring, information gathering and evaluation structures, we  are currently working with an external consultant, Sarah Pickthall, who is helping us develop a model for evaluating our new participatory art project that will be rolled out for use across our entire programme. This includes trailing Sarah’s proposals for making Arts Council England’s Quality Matrix more accessible.​

Unlimited: How do you ensure that artists are paid fairly and/or benefit fully from projects, and what are the considerations and potential pitfalls around this?

ActionSpace: We are in conversation with a number of other organisations at the moment about the best ways of being able to pay our artists. As you say, we currently look at it on a case by case basis. It is important to us that our artists are paid for their artwork and workshop leading on a fair level, in recognition of the work they do, on the level of any other artist.

Project Ability: Every artist has a complex, hard won and protected income. We allocate “payment” to generating opportunities for the artist, facilitating their art making, and putting together an effective team to work with the artist towards them realising the project. The work cannot be produced without the cooperation of a large number of people.

This has buy-in from the artists we work with who want opportunities to develop their practice, learn, progress, have their work appreciated, build audiences, increase their networks, travel, and enjoy life who have too much too lose if their benefits were put at risk.

Unlimited: Many thanks!