Unlimited Project Manager Ellie sat next to Unlimited Trainee Alistair at a school-style desk taking notes.
Ellie, Unlimited Project Manager, aside Alistair, Unlimited Trainee.

Lessons from my Unlimited traineeship

In another sad day for our team, we’re saying goodbye to our trainee, Alistair. Just like MJ last month, Alistair has gathered his thoughts to share the important lessons he learned along the way. We wish both of 2020’s trainees all the best for the future and are excited to welcome two new trainees in the new year!

Well, it’s my turn. My colleague MJ left a while ago, and now I’m making space for somebody else, too. Here are a few things I’ve learned from working at Unlimited over the past year. All very personal and subjective because it’s my blog, not yours.

The resilience (and resistance) of disabled artists is incredible.

The stereotype of the fragile, snowflake-y artist is incredibly bogus in general anyway. All the artists I know who have any kind of sustained career are absolute warriors, constantly fighting to bring into the world all the things they want to share and make the world better in some way, even if it’s ‘only’ making the world a bit more beautiful. The scare quotes are doing a lot of work in that previous sentence because making something beautiful is no small achievement either.

Working at Unlimited, I’ve been privileged to see much more into artists’ lives, ideas, and struggles than most people do. It’s been harrowing at times, too, dealing with people who already experience all kinds of barriers in their lives also having personal or professional crises, magnified by the global crisis we’re all living through. Some of the artists supported by Unlimited channel their frustrations, praxis, and non-normative experiences of life powerfully into their work. For others, the difficult stuff may only be known by people like us who work with them behind the scenes, but in either case we can’t fail to be moved and invested. This can be really difficult, especially when you can’t help everyone as much as you’d like to.

The team at Unlimited really is a team.

If you’re observant, you might have noticed that whether communications from us have a name on them or not, anyone who works for Unlimited very often refers to ‘the team.’ This isn’t just optimistic, reality-defying branding, like Subway calling their employees Sandwich Artists (I wish this was a joke, look it up). Unlimited is beginning the process of changing from a funding programme to a standalone organisation; I think it’s surprising to some people that an entity apparently doing so much isn’t one already. And then Unlimited goes on to punch way above the weight that people even think it has, again and again. I’m sure in future one thing that won’t change is the team… even if the members of the team change, as they have before and they are doing right now.

There definitely is an ‘I’ in this team by the way. Everybody’s style of working, living, and being disabled is very different, but everybody’s contributions are valued. Everybody I’ve worked with at Unlimited and its allied organisations over the past year has, in their own way, contributed to improving the situation for disabled artists throughout the UK.

You can’t do everything for everyone, but you can definitely do something for somebody.

Sometimes it works out great… sometimes you try to support somebody and it doesn’t quite work out, but there’s no hard feelings because it’s a process and until we live in a society that doesn’t disable so many people in so many ways, that’s the best any of us can do. Things usually don’t turn out well if you don’t put the work in, but conversely sometimes things don’t go to plan for absolutely no obvious reason, no matter how hard you try. Sometimes people get frustrated and annoyed. Sometimes we do, too.

And sometimes things don’t work out because some people – artists especially – are a colossal pain in the arse, either because of what they’re going through and the stress they’re under right now or just because they are, in general, a pain in the arse. You might still get the commission or whatever, but… just saying. Do yourself a favour. Artists don’t exist in a vacuum. Everyone who finances, produces, tech supports, runs front of house, publicises, books, tours, and administrates your work is human too. Life can be tough sometimes for all of us, no need to manufacture any extra drama and deliberately make life even harder.

Anyway, this year I feel like I’ve definitely done something for quite a lot of people and hopefully left the situation for artists ever so slightly better than I found it. And most artists are wonderful people who entirely deserve whatever love and support (and money) they get, actually.

Quality, innovation, and ambition matter… but one person can’t decide what these words mean.

They’re the primary criteria that the recent commissions were shortlisted against, as were all the previous commissions. They’re also apparently plain English but potentially very subjective, slippery, ambiguous, loaded words. With only 77 on the shortlist and 468 applications, there are probably at least the same number again of entirely deserving good quality, innovative and ambitious artists or companies who didn’t make it because the odds were against them rather than through any lack on their part.

Unfortunately, that’s part of the deal if you start getting into trying to find funding for your work. As I said before, wow is it heart-breaking to see how good some artists are or could be and not be able to support them. It’s actually more tragic than the just plain bad applications, although they’re sad too mainly because they’re usually bad in ways they needn’t be.

I’m a practising artist as well and being rejected hurts like hell, especially when you’re sure – and you might even be told, because it’s true and somebody is trying to be compassionate – that your application was as good as anybody who got through. I won’t speak for anywhere else but I can speak about my experience at Unlimited. The quality, innovation, ambition criteria – in combination with huge and diverse panels that crucially include practising artists – actually work surprisingly well. For a start, they make it easier to separate any one individual’s personal like or dislike for an idea or a type of work from that proposal’s potential to find an audience.

For example, I’m going to out myself and admit that anything circus or carnivalesque and certain kinds of contemporary dance make me want to crawl out of my own skin. Fuelled by the general divisiveness of social media, and mass media narratives of artists as workshy chancers and spongers, many people (including some prominent artists, critics, and gatekeepers in the arts who should know better) just flatly dismiss any art or entertainment that isn’t for them. I think it’s not only fine but extremely healthy that not everything pleases or speaks to everyone, and also OK that artistic decisions occasionally upset, disappoint, or offend some people, or a lot of people.

It’s easier to put this kind of prejudice aside if you look at any artist’s work with these kinds of frame instead: are they committed to doing it well, which may include things being done well within their own frame of reference rather than yours? Has it been done, or done in this way, or from this point of view? Is this artist moving their practice or the art form forward in some way and not just spinning their wheels? Maybe it isn’t for me, and maybe it doesn’t have to be, but is it for somebody?

Try it. It makes the contact improv seem bearable. It makes the mimes seem less disturbing. They’re not for me, but they’re definitely for someone.