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 Ambition for Excellence award, match funded by the British Council, enabled Unlimited to extend global influence, principally through co-commissions with non-UK based disabled artists. Unlimited recently commissioned case studies to extend the learning from this work. The first case study looked at Unfixed, a creative research project that explored the intersections of art, disability, and technology involving ten disabled artists from the UK and Australia. This one – the second – is about two international producer placements held with Unlimited in 2016. A third case study will be launched in September.
As well as increasing the number of disabled artists, the global cultural community needs to increase the number of disabled people working in positions of power and leadership as administrators, producers and curators. This case study focuses on Unlimited’s two international producer placements held in 2016, discussing their processes, achievements and developments.
Unlimited first hosted an international placement when Morwenna Collett, Disability Coordinator for the Australia Council for the Arts, embarked on a prototype secondment shortly before the start of Southbank Centre’s 2014 Unlimited Festival. Speaking in 2016, Morwenna said the experience gave her “a wealth of new ideas I brought back to implement in my organisation to increase the quality of the programs we offer to support artists with disability in Australia. I was also able to offer Unlimited some suggestions for process improvements that they could make, based on my knowledge working for a funding body in Australia, so it was mutually beneficial.” Morwenna has continued in-post and has been seconded to run Accessible Arts NSW as interim CEO.
In 2016 the two international placements were recruited via a formal but flexible process. Unlimited works to the Social Model of Disability, which means it offers adjustments and alternatives to the ways in which applicants can apply to opportunities and commissions. The callout began in April 2016 and was well circulated, raising the profile and awareness of Unlimited’s international ambitions and wider work. The placement, funded through British Council’s Cultural Skills department, achieved a strong geographical spread, with a total of 58 applications from 24 different countries. In future, the programme hopes to increase applications from currently underrepresented areas such as Africa.
The Unlimited programme has a reputation in the sector as being generous with time and this is an undoubtable strength. The applicants for this placement were interviewed via Skype over two days by members of Unlimited, as well as Dan Daw, Theatre and Dance, British Council.
Due to the exceptional calibre of the candidates, two applicants were chosen – Sokny Onn and Fred Batale, both bringing different perspectives and experiences to the team. The second placement was made possible through additional funding from Arts Council England. Sokny is Senior Manager of Epic Arts, an international, inclusive arts organisation based in Cambodia, registered as a charity in the UK. Fred held a managerial position with 32° East, Ugandan Arts Trust, an independent non-profit organisation, focused on the creation and exploration of contemporary art in Uganda, and is the founder of Disability Arts Project Uganda.
What was learnt? What worked well?
During her time with Unlimited, Sokny learned about the running of the commissions programme; she encountered new ways of making art and cultural events accessible to a wider range of audiences and, most importantly, returned to Cambodia with global allies: “I feel like I am not alone anymore. Sometimes the work Epic Arts does, it can feel a bit lonely because Epic’s work is unique, and it can be questioned. Sometimes we are facing sensitive issues relating to the political situation because the work we do is challenging … To be able to access the Unlimited disability arts network, I feel I have a stronger community to show others. I feel supported by the community. They have shaped me and made my ambitions stronger – to make a big positive impact on my community and society.”
Sokny has continued to act as an ambassador for cultural change in Cambodia and returned to the UK to sit on Unlimited’s International commissions selection panel as part of her placement. Sokny felt that she was better able to contribute her skills, knowledge and expertise to the programme through visiting twice. Being part of the selection process prior to festival attendance may give future placement holders a better grasp of Unlimited’s work as a whole, rather than assuming a focus dominated by festival activity.
Fred’s experience, although shorter, still pushed him to make some dramatic changes: “Since I returned to Uganda I decided to take Disability Arts Project Uganda (DAPU) to another level. I registered DAPU as a company limited by guarantee so we have a wider reach to disabled people, and to have a wider range of arts we work with. I left my work with 32° East to concentrate my effort on DAPU and our disability arts festival – the idea which I developed through doing a placement with Unlimited. I managed to team up with Pamoja Dance Company, of Kenya, which will help DAPU to run a disability festival with a wider range of arts.”
Unlimited as a programme also gained skills and knowledge. The team’s planning was meticulous, however there were unforeseen difficulties, for example, regarding visas. The team are now more confident in supporting visa applications and conducting interviews internationally; they know the requirements and necessity of shaping thorough inductions for non-UK based contacts, and the placements have demonstrated that they can competently plan and host complex international projects. These skills will now be applied to all Unlimited International activities.
Working with Fred gave Unlimited a greater understanding of the cultural infrastructure within Africa. One team member is now exploring funding for a research trip to establish a deeper relationship with the continent.
One of the strengths of Morwenna’s placement in 2014 was the quick integration of her into the core team and a two-way exchange of information. Both Sokny and Fred gave insightful presentations internally, but these could have reached a wider audience and created greater impact.
Unlimited has funds to repeat the placement model in 2017/18 and is planning longer lead in times and a more extensive remote induction to help establish closer working relationships between the placement holder, the core Unlimited team and collaborators.
Fred praised the placement opportunity but pointed out that upon returning to Uganda he experienced familiar frustrations from disabled artists within his community: “When I came back home many artists were excited, thinking that I had come back with a well-funded project ready to execute immediately.” Some form of placement legacy award, or co-production with the UK, would allow placement holders in future to implement grass root changes more quickly within their communities.
What can others take from this?
- Hosting an international placement may seem daunting, however with a bold, proactive approach to skill-sharing it’s a model that can easily be replicated by organisations – alone or in partnership.
- Placements can be scaled up or down depending on funding available. Generous timescales, flexibility, creative thinking to overcome challenges and a willingness to adjust original ambitions is key.
- Placements should be mutually beneficial for both the host and the placement holder – which requires extensive planning. What can the placement holder genuinely bring to your team? Be aware of cultural differences in working practices and always communicate clearly and in multiple ways.
- Take action, but don’t rush. A well planned, mutually beneficial placement with long term impact that has well-articulated, achievable outcomes may take a year or more to organise but is ultimately worth more.
- Placements can be reliable pathways to longer term, strong international links. Open the doors to your organisation and to your wider network. Allow placement holders to build face to face relationships with others, creating opportunities and bringing new perspectives to the wider ‘local’ cultural community of your city or region.
- The visa process is lengthy and can be subject to unforeseen delays. Start as soon as possible, identify which visa’s, letters of sponsorship or additional documents are required and seek advice as mistakes will slow down the process. When problems arise – communicate clearly and be responsive to the developing situation. Everyone must take collective responsibility. Having a ‘plan B’ is vital.
- Your organisation will not get everything right first time.The Unlimited placements have improved structurally and will continue to do so.
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