Two people in carnival costumes. The costumes are made to look like birds, with bright red beaks and head pieces. They have feathers on their brown chest pieces.
Photo of the Unlimited-supported Viva Carnival at the Southbank Centre Unlimited Festival. Image credit Tracy Curtis.

Unlimited: commission criteria explored…

The Expression of Interest portal is now open! You can click through to apply by following the ‘start your application’ link at the bottom of this page.


Covid-19 has set our cultural sector on shifting sands and it’s never been more essential to invest in artists and the freelance teams that support them. To do just that, Unlimited’s next commissions round has over half a million pounds to award. Now, we’re diving in deeper to explore aspects of the commissions programme to support disabled artists and companies thinking about applying. In this blog, we are focusing on the core Unlimited criteria – what do they really mean? 

Unlimited is a competitive awards process – and we expect it to be more competitive than ever given the current situation. Last round, we had over 270 applications, created a shortlist of 50 projects and then gave awards to 26. The first stage to apply – Expression of Interest – is short and simple, and artists can submit up to two ideas providing one is linked to a Partner Award.

The best way to get your idea onto the shortlist is to respond directly to the selection criteria – the ones used by all the panellists when selecting their preferred projects.  As it says within the Expression of Interest information, the key criteria for all Unlimited awards are:

  • To be disability-led.
  • To show quality, innovation and ambition.

Disability-led

When we say ‘disability-led,’ we mean that the creative idea and the creative control must reside with the disabled artist/s involved. Artists may collaborate with non-disabled people, but the creative ideas and direction should be led by disabled people.

We’ve supported a wide range of artists, including those who experience a wide variety of communication barriers. With appropriate access and support, we believe that all disabled artists can make their own creative decisions and lead projects themselves.

One such artist was Delson Weekes, who works with Blink Dance Theatre. As our blog on his project ‘Pull Up’ describes, Delson ‘is largely non-verbal, so it can take longer for him to articulate ideas.’ During the development of his emerging artist award, Delson worked with a number of collaborators. One, Bulblet, described their process: “At the beginning, it was as much about Delson realising he was the boss as creating the music itself, as this is Delson’s first time as lead artist. It was important to lay a solid foundation of communication where Delson knew he was being listened to… When describing his music Delson communicated it has moods and themes such as scary, sad or magic. ‘I have the power, good power.’”

Unlimited is one part of a jigsaw of provision for disabled artists – which includes larger organisations, inclusive companies, initiatives, projects, programmes and many individual artists, micro-organisations, collectives, and others. In this bigger picture, excellent work is created led by disabled artists and equally excellent work is created when processes are led by non-disabled people. However, Unlimited focus on the former and do not fund the latter.

Any disabled artist can apply to us directly, and any organisation or project can apply providing the project is a new one and is creatively led by disabled artists. National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) or similar can apply, but only to deliver something that is not already within their agreed delivery plans. If an organisation that is not disabled-led applies, the disabled artist/artists who will be in creative control have to be named within the application and the work of those artists referenced.

If it’s not clear cut, the key is in the articulation – anyone applying should explain how ‘disability-led’ applies to their situation. 

Quality

Quality is contentious. It means different things to different people. It has different definitions in relation to various art forms.

Unlimited commissions ‘high quality work’ – by this we mean work that would be defined as high quality within the artform or genre in which the idea sits. For example, the definition of high quality for live art may differ from that for literature or dance or music. Participatory projects will look at what quality means differently. When we say quality, we are not referring exclusively to production values, but to a wider definition of quality, including the quality of peoples’ ideas.

One way, perhaps, to consider what quality means in the context of Unlimited is to look at the work we support – from carnival to process based workshops, from politically based work to giant woven textiles, from one person shows to a bedroom in an Art B&B.

We draw our selection panels widely (and all are disability-led). They are the ones who make decisions around ‘quality’ based on the information supplied in applications. We understand that notions of quality are subjective.

Innovation and ambition

The application information says: ‘We are looking for work that is innovative, fresh and pushes boundaries.’ This is our way of saying that we like risk and are looking for work that might not be funded by another funder. If you want to fund your next piece in a series of work you are making, Unlimited might not be the right fit. We want artists to be ambitious. All applications should include a sense of stretch for artists – in relation to form, audiences, scale, or partnerships, for example.

This approach has seen us fund large installations – such as Breathing Room – working at a size that Anna Berry had not been able to work at before;  musicals such as Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide: the Musical; the R&D of Natasha Sutton Williams’ Lesbian Pirates, and saw the creation of the first ever disabled Vogue house in the UK with Fitting’s Unlimited House of Krip.

We do not fund ideas that are not original to the artist/s applying, and look at applications closely to check that work is distinct from that of other artists, including those which might have inspired it.

Across the strands

These are the core criteria that work across all three strands. Each strand also has some other – for example, the main commission strand has criteria around ‘strong track record of creating work and reaching audiences.’

Each Partner Award also has additional criteria – these will be explored further in the next blog in this series, due soon.

Ultimately, it is for our selection panels to determine how well applications match up with the criteria (we’ll be announcing who is on the selection panels this summer). No one from Unlimited, Shape, or Artsadmin has a decision-making role within the final selection panels. Each panel will be looking to support a range of work – in relation to artform, scale, equality of opportunity, and geographic location – across all the commissions.

FROM THE BLOG