By Simon Overington-Hickford
Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme that aims to embed exceptional work by disabled artists within the UK and international cultural sectors, reach new audiences, and shift perceptions of disabled people. It is delivered in partnership by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, with funding from Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, British Council and Spirit of 2012.
In 2016 an Arts Council England’s Ambitions of Excellence award, match funded by the British Council, enabled Unlimited to extend global influence principally through co-commissions with non-UK based disabled artists. These case studies extend the learning from this work.
Collaboration will always be a fundamental component of producing high quality, engaging art across all forms. Networks such as IETM play a crucial role in promoting discussion and a sharing of knowledge and experiences. Diverse voices and representation in these settings are necessary to ensure a vibrant cultural ecology. It is vital that networks and spaces such as these provide a welcoming, accessible and equal environment to all artists and producers, including those who identify as disabled and/or have a variety of intersectional identities. This case study will examine Unlimited’s work supporting the British Council to take small parties of disabled artists and producers to IETM, both to give these creatives increased networking opportunities and to open up discussion about diversity within the network.
Unlimited, since its original conception as part of London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, has acted as an advocate and catalyst for embedding disabled artists into the UK and international cultural sectors. The ability to shift perceptions of disabled people worldwide has been enhanced by the formal creation of the Unlimited International strand in 2016, funded by Arts Council England and British Council.
IETM describes itself as a “network of over 500 performing arts organisations and individual members working in the contemporary performing arts worldwide.” It delivers two plenary meetings a year in different European cities, and a number of smaller meetings all over the world. In addition, “IETM commissions publications and research projects, facilitates communication and distribution of information, and advocates for the value of the arts.” In 2005 IETM dropped its original title of “Informal European Theatre Meeting” to become simply “IETM”, however delegates who have attended over many years stressed that the ‘informal’ is still a unique part of its appeal- it is a forum and not a marketplace to sell work. IETM, and similar networks, are arguably more crucial than ever to the UK cultural sector, since the UK government began the formal process of withdrawing the UK from the European Union.
Ben Evans, Head of Arts & Disability in the EU Region at British Council, explained a number of initiatives they have been running with IETM in recent years: “We have supported working sessions in previous plenary meetings to discuss the aesthetic value of the work of disabled artists (the ‘Creative Case’) and to discuss the work of European BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] artists. We have brought Romanian Roma artists to the Bucharest plenary – introducing artists whose worlds would never collide, despite their geographic proximity. Together we have issued a publication about the contribution of disabled dance makers to Europe’s dance sector. And, this year, we have worked with IETM and all our peer organisations from other countries to discuss how each of us can take responsibility for the increased diversification of the artists coming to IETM.”
Each party has distinct objectives but they are working together to achieve them. Unlimited want to start discussions and empower action to allow attitudes to disabled creatives and disability led artwork to develop internationally. To disrupt and explore nuance. Working with IETM and British Council is an efficient and productive way to achieve this legacy, particularly for a finite programme. IETM are clear that bringing new groups to the meetings makes it easier to discuss diversity with existing members. Victor Mayot, Project Manager at IETM elaborates, “the presence of the British Council/Unlimited delegation pushed the IETM staff to nudge IETM’s Associate Members to discuss the strategy of IETM on the matter.” Ben Evans explained the British Councils has two main goals: “the British Council wants a wider range of UK artists to benefit from all that the network has to offer, but we also think that IETM is strengthened when it is truly representative of Europe’s artists.”
The core Unlimited team, and representatives from one of Unlimited’s co-delivery partners Artsadmin, regularly attend IETM. These have included Amsterdam, Netherlands (April 2016), Valencia, Spain (November 2016) and, most recently, Brussels, Belgium (November 2017).
Unlimited continues to work closely with the British Council to encourage the network’s access provision. Building on the British Council’s established bursary fund for BAME artists and producers to attend IETM, the British Council and Unlimited have collaborated to support disabled artists and producers from the UK to attend the gatherings through bursaries. Bursary awardees are given free delegate passes, a travel and accommodation grant, and support from Unlimited with any access requirements. Having these creatives at the meetings offered a genuine chance to raise the visibility and profile of exceptional work by disabled artists and promote awareness, training, debate and discussion among the wider network.
What went well and what was learnt?
The first cohort, nominated by British Council and Unlimited, attended IETM in Valencia, a plenary described by one attendee as a “vibrant and open-minded community.” This initial trip was small, testing the waters and finding them largely positive for both the artists and the wider IETM community, though of course there were challenges. Ben Evans reflects, “One of the things we learnt very quickly was that being one of just a handful of disabled delegates coming from a country with a very developed dialogue about the creative value of the work of disabled artists… can be hugely challenging… There is no doubt that when you travel internationally that you come up against different beliefs and cultural values. The key, I think, is to understand that this lack of mutual understanding should be the start of a conversation, and not the end of one.”
The second significantly larger cohort, who attended IETM Brussels, were selected through an open call, assessed by a panel including members of the British Council, Unlimited and an independent disabled producer with previous experience of the IETM network. Lessons were learnt from Valencia, and an in-depth briefing helped prepare artists for a new and sometimes demanding environment. Measures were taken to address feedback from the previous trip- that artists occasionally felt overwhelmed or uncomfortable and in need of further access assistance. Greater pastoral care was provided in the form of a dedicated support worker. This was an important change, as it’s vital that artists and producers feel adequately supported and empowered to have frank discussions. However, the general consensus is that a breakthrough occurred at the plenary meeting in Brussels. Although part of a separate programme of activity, Unlimited also ran a fully booked workshop on access, disability and the arts, which explored the Social Model of Disability and got the professional participants thinking about creative ways to remove barriers. The most encouraging aspect is that there was, as Shape’s Sara Dziadik mentioned, ‘a buzz’ around access, and an appetite change. Victor Mayot agrees “IETM staff have an increased awareness of the accessibility needs of participants. IETM is now seen as a space open to people with disability.”
What can others take from this?
Shifting the perceptions of disabled artists, producers and audiences internationally may be challenging but the collaborative efforts of British Council, IETM and Unlimited prove that progressive strides can be made. A sea change is imminent. This undertaking has lessons that funders, professional networks, programmers and venues can all take away:
- If you diversify the attendees at your event or network, this will organically lead to more diverse involvement in important conversations and projects. This, in turn, will lead to more intersectional representation within the cultural sector.
- Transparency and sensitivity are needed on all sides. Organisations, cultures and people have different experiences, contexts and histories. This doesn’t mean that they can’t, or shouldn’t, evolve- but it also means that one approach does not fit everyone. An awareness and acknowledgement of circumstances opens up dialogue to find common ground and seek the best solutions.
- Before any new introductions to long-running networks, everyone involved needs to be well prepared and open minded in their approach.
- Changing practices, approaches or building relationships with new groups is challenging. Every party involved in taking action to diversify the sector needs mutual support from the partners they are working with. Cooperation is key.
- Change takes time. It’s a process. There is little point varying attendees at a single event. Taking a longer term approach and using continuous evaluation may reap better rewards.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions – to learn, and also explore assumptions or prejudices.
- Be bold.
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