From Sydney to London, Unlimited’s international intern!

This summer, we had the immense pleasure of welcoming Morwenna Collett, Disability Coordinator at the Australia Council for the Arts.  She joined us as an intern for a few weeks before and during the Unlimited Festival, and in that short time surpassed her job title by miles! Bringing her positive energy and rigorous organisational skills, she became an invaluable member of the team during that busy period – we simply could not have done it without her!

By Morwenna Collett

On 22nd August 2014, I hopped on a plane from Sydney to London to start a secondment to work with the Unlimited Commissions Programme team as their International Intern, during the period of the 2014 Unlimited Festival.

As the Disability Coordinator at the Australia Council for the Arts, I am interested in how artists with disability are supported to make and present work. Arts and disability work in Australia is still a relatively small field, so I was keen to expand my knowledge of this work and learn from activities taking place in the UK, which is generally viewed as being ahead of the curve. A delegation of 6 Australians attended the Unlimited Festival in 2012, and hearing about their experiences spurred me on to find a way to be involved in the next iteration of the festival myself.

The Australia Council has developed a strong relationship with Unlimited Senior Producer Jo Verrent over the last 12 months, initially inviting her ‘down under’ to present at our annual Marketing Summit and then undertake a series of public forums around the country speaking about disability leadership. Jo will shortly take her second trip to Australia to run the Sync Leadership Program  and present at our biennial Arts Activated conference.

After a series of emails and conversations with Jo and my employer (the Australia Council), there I was! Arriving a week before the festival, or the ‘calm before the storm’, I shadowed a different member of the five person team each day. The Unlimited Commissions Program is managed by two different London based organisations, Shape and Arts Admin, with two staff members from each making up the working team, as well as Jo as Senior Producer. This provided me with an insight into what it is like to work in a small arts organisation in the UK, particularly useful for me as someone who has spent a number of years working in large government arts funding agencies.  I was able to assist with all sorts of projects and tasks, from ticketing allocations, to venue negotiations, as well as preparing evaluation questionnaires and the post-festival debrief day. I also observed the support staff gave with the 9 commissioned artists and 17 research and development artists supported by the Commissions Programme in the lead up to the event.

The festival week was spent at the Southbank Centre, one of London’s most renowned arts venues. The Unlimited Festival itself is curated by Wendy Martin and approximately 50% of works in the festival were those funded through the Commissions Programme. Wendy was able to include one international work in the program this year – “Intimacy” by Michelle Ryan and Torque Show, a group of Australian artists who were supported by the Australia Council to travel over to perform at the festival.

Being committed to evaluation, the Commissions Programme engaged external consultants to appraise the artistic quality of the festival overall. To assist with this, staff provided artistic assessment reports on the works they viewed. I saw 15 performances and another 15 events (including exhibitions, films and workshops) – not bad for a 6 day festival! I was impressed with the high quality of the work, which had strong production values, was well developed and had broad international market appeal. An incredibly diverse mix of stories were told, including everything from a kids show to a sex show, and at times the subject matter was quite confronting. It was great to see a range of different artforms represented, including poetry for the first time.

What was most exciting was how well embedded access was in the works, its inclusion enhancing not hindering its quality. BSL interpreters became performers, captioning was shown directly on stage to portray parts of the story, braille programs were available and audio description was incorporated into performances for all audience members to listen to, as well as on tap for every visual arts exhibition and film. The Southbank Centre itself had also given a lot of thought to access, from a singing lift announcing which the level it’s at, to staff knowledge of access routes as well as the provision of accessible means of seeing performances. While there is always room to make arts experiences even more accessible, seeing first hand this high level of access provided by a festival was very encouraging.

Alongside the festival program, the British Council put together a series of events for their delegation of 100+ people who came from all over the world to attend the festival. Bringing people together from diverse cultural backgrounds, often with very different attitudes towards disability, to see work and be involved in discussions was eye opening. It was at their networking and talks events that I made some valuable connections with international colleagues working in this area.

After a week of seeing work, meeting people and having my eyes opened up to new access possibilities, it was time to bump out of the Southbank Centre and hold a debrief with the team and about what worked well and what needs improvement for the next festival. This was a useful time to reflect on our experiences and it was good to capture this before heading into November, when submissions for the next round of commissions for Unlimited 2016 open. The team really do not get much of a rest!

I absorbed so much information on this trip – about support to artists, quality of artistic work, access to art, attitudes and support to people with disability generally (such as the Access to Work scheme) –  which will now influence my own work at the Australia Council and how we can best support we can to artists with disability in our country.  Many thanks to Jo and the Unlimited team for having me and also to the Australia Council for supporting me with this secondment opportunity, I am very grateful indeed. I look forward to seeing what’s in store for Unlimited 2016!