An old looking parchment, bordered by a fine red line, contains a delicate black ink illustration. The drawing moves in a wave, from top to bottom. It is made up of small animals such as birds, all moving in unison.
Mural by artist Mohammad Barrangi. Image courtesy of the artist.

Reimagining Arts Commissioning

Recently, Unlimited held an online event in partnership with Bagri Foundation, who are partnering with us in our current commissioning round to fund two research and development awards specifically for disabled artists identifying as Asian artists / from the Asian Diaspora (these may be from any art form, including visual arts, film, literature, music and dance – more information at the bottom of the page).

The event forwarded a provocative mix of ideas, challenging the status quo and providing much food for thought as Unlimited transitions into an independent organisation.  A PDF and Microsoft Word document transcript is available below. In this blog, we asked Ashokkumar Mistry, one of our alumni artists, to reflect on the event…

Transcript of the event: available as Microsoft Word document or PDF

I feel quixotic at times, talking about disability. Covid-19 has, however, brought disability into focus. It has also highlighted vulnerability amongst people with managed health conditions such as asthma and diabetes, who did not consider themselves disabled.  But ableism is something that is so ingrained into human cultures that it is easy to feel gaslit into thinking one is tilting at windmills of barriers that don’t exist. 

However, listening to three artists during the Reimagining Arts Commissioning event – hosted by Unlimited and Bagri Foundation – brought a stillness and clarity I rarely experience.  Led by Joon Lyn Goh, three artists – Kai Syng TanMohammad Fastami Barrangi and Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings – explored commissioning and the inherent barriers present within a commissioning process. This blog expands on some of the themes the artists discussed along with some of my own views on the themes of reimagining commissioning. 

All of the artists were first or second generation immigrants and this led me to consider my own experience of being a second generation child of migrants, effectively making me neither a native of the country of my birth or the country of my heritage. In effect, I am a ‘never-native’ and as deaf/disabled/neurodivergent artists we are all never natives to the systems, processes, and practices of the arts sector that encompass current ideas around commissioning. The ‘way things are done’ in commissions and the broader art scene has always felt foreign and informs much of my activism and writing. 

In other words, does the commissioning process understand equality or equity?

We spent time considering where our current selection methods originated and how they are designed; insight necessary in order to effectively instigate change. So, why do we create commissions in the way we do and use current methods to select artists? More importantly, where do they come from? Many of the practices and processes are learned from other parts of the sector without questioning their suitability to disabled artists. A kind of trickle-down of practices percolates across the sector without being questioned.  The idea of competitions and finding the best of the best has its origins in the work of people like Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin who we know was a pioneer of eugenics.

Kai Syng Tan highlighted that, when we look at the framing of a commission, there is a tendency to focus on the output. As Kai pointed out, an important alternative to consider is the potential to use art to focus on the processes that create sustainable change. I would like to clarify that Unlimited does not stipulate an explicitly ‘disability-focused’ approach to artists. To use Kai’s example, instead of asking artists to create an artwork that necessarily explores their disability, we could use commissioning as a process to create a vocabulary of positive impacts of disability that enables an artist’s uniqueness.

When we look at commissioning in the mainstream, although there is no formal data, one could argue a predominance of a celebrity culture in the publicly funded art sector (including disabled focused arts sector) that mirrors the commercial sector.  The same goes for the methods used to create opportunities across the entire publicly funded sector, as we use the same language and the winner takes all methods as used in the commercial sector.  As Jo Verrent mentioned in the intro to the talk, Unlimited has been working to ensure a more equal distribution of commissions.  Their data shows 60% of commissions go to less well-known artists that were previously unfamiliar to Unlimited. 

Difference is our leitmotif and can be celebrated through collaboration instead of individualism.

In my view, commissioning should not be a process like panning for gold: gouging an area of stony deposits, swirling it to reveal the shiny bits, which are picked out while the rest is discarded.  When we see  deaf/disabled/neurodivergent artists, do we see the potential for them to assimilate into a process designed for ‘able bodied’ artists or see an opportunity for our processes to assimilate to their needs? In other words, does the commissioning process understand equality or equity? We need more development opportunities for artists that are specific to their needs; that seek to translate, and not assimilate, a deaf/disabled/neurodivergent artist’s uniqueness. 

As I wrote earlier, we as deaf/disabled/neurodivergent artists are never-natives to current practices. We need a more nurturing conversational approach to commissioning that sees potential in everyone. Mohammad Fastami Barrangi explored the experience of asylum seekers and the isolation felt in a new land. Mohammad spoke of the struggle of finding routes and learning the vernacular of being an artist in a new setting and the springboard of opportunity that resulted from Unlimited sensing potential in him. We are not individual athletes that can traverse a prescribed yardage at the sound of the starting pistol. Difference is our leitmotif and can be celebrated through collaboration instead of individualism. To this end we need to find new ways of working that do not lionise the handful at the expense of the many who are seen as unsuccessful. What is the point of so much labour when only a few can benefit?  In order to tap into the unlimited potential of deaf/disabled/neurodivergent artists, we need to find new ways of commissioning that fit needs, not skewed ideas of professionalism.   

To really impact commissioning in a meaningful way, we need more connectivity with artists and conversations between arts organisations and artists. Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings elucidated the lack of intersectional understanding amongst curatorial teams and the need for specialist awareness that is able to translate and connect the opportunities to a D/deaf artist.  In Omeima’s words, understanding was “bringing a level playing field.” An example given was the impact of losing the support of a deaf artist officer who worked for Shape Arts which left her feeling dislocated from opportunities.

The second change would be a mixture of opportunities for artists at all levels of development that are offered in some cases through nominations that are informed by conversations. Thirdly, we need to take the labour out of applying for opportunities where a competition model is the only way to go. This means applications should be about collecting data to inform decisions in an equitable manner not a metier. Finally, commissioning needs to sit alongside artists development so that if an opportunity is competitive, those who otherwise seen to “fail” are still part of the conversation going forward. They are still invested in.

It is encouraging to see the conversation start and my ADHD is impatient to see change (besides I’ve been waiting close to 25 years for it).  Covid-19 has amplified the absence of deaf/disabled/neurodivergent artists and it feels as though the arts sector as a whole is ready to look our way. Amanda Cachia highlights the observations shared with her by Francesca Rosenberg (Moma) in her paper titled ‘Disability, Curating and the Educational Turn: The Contemporary Condition of Access in the Museum.’ In her experience, she has found that one of the biggest incentives for curators to work on disability and engagement is because of their personal encounter with a deaf/disabled person, such as the curator whose mother has dementia, or the curator who breaks their leg and must use a temporary crutch to move through the gallery space. (Cachia 2014) . 

Here we can see that people are motivated to consider disability through experience. Correspondingly, my provocation is this: Covid has effectively enabled society and the arts sector to experience disability.  Therefore, through these ‘experiences,’ will we see a motivation in the arts to understand disability?  

A note from Unlimited 

Our current commission round opens for applications soon and includes both partner and non-partner awards. We are delighted that the Bagri Foundation are partnering with us on 2 research and development awards aimed at artists identifying as Asian artists / from the Asian Diaspora. 

Bagri Foundation contributes to global discourse by encouraging artistic dialogue between cultures and disciplines. They support new artistic work by extraordinary Asian talent, share knowledge and expertise from, about or inspired by cultures across Asia. The foundation supports ground-breaking artistic interpretations and new ideas that creatively engage both the traditional and the contemporary.    

Through this partnership with Unlimited, Bagri Foundation are keen to encourage proposals linked to the written word, including poetry and creative writing, which are currently underrepresented within Unlimited’s portfolio. Please help us spread the word to any disabled artists you know who might be interested. 

You can make an Expressions of Interest application from 1 October 2020 and the application portal closes on the 27 October 2020. All information to apply can be found here.