Last week, Visual Arts Group Wales held an Unlimited Connects Wales event online – Making Space: Curating Disabled Artists. Taking part were 15 freelance artists, curators, producers and senior programming staff at visual arts venues in Wales. The event had been planned to take place in Wrexham, but for obvious reasons was held via video conference. Suzie Larke, currently prevented from sharing her Unlimited Commission due to COVID 19, reports…
I have to admit feeling a pang of relief that I no longer had to drive the five hours from Cardiff to attend this meeting. I often find social gatherings quite frankly exhausting, especially when coupled with long journeys. As a result, this conference was suddenly a lot less daunting and lot more accessible to me.
Chris Mooney-Brown led the discussion, joined by guest contributors including: Mike Layward (Artistic Director, DASH), Anna Berry (DASH curator in residence, MAC Birmingham), and Gaia Redgrave (Artist).
We kicked off with Anna Berry’s presentation of her work and the barriers she’s experienced as a disabled artist.
She described often feeling like an outsider in the art world – that there are lots of ways to be an ‘outsider’ and sometimes it’s to do with being excluded because of quite tangible barriers. For instance, not being able to go to exhibition openings, or not having networks or not having been to art school can make it seemingly impossible to break in. Now she’s trying to forge her own path in a parallel place to the art world and hoping that, at some point, she’ll make the ‘cross over’.
She talked about how disability arts funding had really helped her to realise her work and thrive. Anna became the first artist to take part in the curatorial commissions programme organised by DASH. She was given the role of curator in residence for Midlands Arts Centre which resulted in an exhibition in the spring of 2020.
Mike Layward was next to speak, Mike talked about the work DASH do. DASH is working in partnership with three galleries in England, MAC Birmingham, MIMA Middlesbrough and Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire. Each organisation will have with a Disabled curator/artist in residence for a year. The aim of the programme is to make the visual arts sector more accessible, develop more Disabled curators, and create galleries who will be vanguards for change in the sector.
When posed with the question: what does it take for the art world to fully embrace a disabled artist as an artist, an equal? He offered a great response:
“We all have individual responsibility to call out disablism when we see it, but like all discrimination/exclusion, it is usually subtle because it is embedded in our thinking from being children. This does sound like you will all feel full of guilt but disabilism is no different to racism, we all have to acknowledge it. How does that help the visual arts world? Well, it will stop us being tokenistic and see an artist as an artist. If their work is crap it’s not because they are a disabled artist, it’s because they are a crap artist.”
Next, Gaia Redgrave gave a presentation of her work and a vivid insight into her experience of the barriers faced when trying to enter her work in competitions and exhibitions. She highlighted he extent of her barriers by saying that the only way we got to meet her that day was because of a global pandemic forcing us to all meet online. She illustrated a harsh reality of exclusion and lack of empathy from some arts organisations. It was hard to hear, but much of what she said underlined the reasons we were there.
The art world is a tough nut to crack. There is no simple solution or step by step guide to ‘making it’ as an artist. But, sadly, this nut seems to be coated in concrete when looking at it from the perspective of a disabled artist – someone who already encounters barriers on a daily basis. It’s sad but true that attitudes towards the work of disabled artists can be quite patronising. For some reason it’s often viewed as ‘not as good.’ Aidan Moesby always makes the astute/funny observation that the disabled art always gets put in the corridor space on the way to the toilets.
When I first considered showing my work I was stumped by the question of: how do I get exhibitions? I asked my peers for advice on where to go, who to ask. I knew I was going to have to accept knock backs and let downs. However, I was not prepared for oppressive attitudes towards the work I was making. I create photographs that are about mental well-being. Portraying struggle through conceptual digital art. I was told that my work wouldn’t ‘fit in’ in mainstream galleries. That I would be better off looking for spaces that might show ‘that kind of stuff,’ but no one could offer any suggestions of which spaces these might be.
This event pointed to a real need to keep doing more to include the work of disabled artists in the mainstream art world. That we should be turning to the artists themselves, not just the organisations when deciding what access venues should offer. It might be timely, given the opportunity to stop and reflect, to work on changing attitudes and perceptions and decide what kind of art world we wish to aspire to in the future.
Overall it will need to be a collaborative effort, working with all disability arts organisations in Wales, to create support systems and structures– that work both in the short and the long term, that mean a more inclusive accessible outcome.
Due to COVID 19, the planned Unlimited Connects Wales events in Swansea and Aberystwyth have been cancelled and will be replaced with an online event in the summer, date to be confirmed.