Image of the panel from Unlimited Connects Midlands. The image shows a man signing and the panel face him as he speaks.

Unlimited event: Connects South West at Salisbury Arts Centre, Wiltshire Creative, Salisbury

We have been hosting a series of events called Unlimited Connects all over the UK, the event is a chance for artists and allies to meet and discuss important issues around disability and the arts sector. Blogger Eleanor Lisney recaps her experience at Unlimited Connects in Salisbury.

On 18 October, I felt fortunate to be invited to attend this Unlimited event in Salisbury which was part of Unlimited Connects, a series of events throughout the UK bringing together disabled artists and current and potential Unlimited Allies. These gatherings provide an opportunity to debate and discuss, as well as to meet new contacts. There were events in each of the Arts Council England areas (except London) in September and October 2019, and a series of events throughout Wales from November 2019 to March 2020. 

For each event, Unlimited collaborated with a local partner and tailored the content to meet the interests of the local area and/or the artform/s most strongly linked to that partner. In this event in Salisbury, it was a day long and had panel discussion, facilitated networking and some pitches from disabled artists – we know how important this is to so many disabled artists who find networking a huge barrier to their careers.  

It was a lovely day when I set off from London with my support worker. I have never been to Salisbury before. Salisbury Arts Centre, the venue where the day-long event was being held turned out to be a church building, which has great accessibility. Good accessibility not just in terms of physical access but also the information on the building and clear directions. As a dyspraxic wheelchair user, I find having clear directions important.   

The programme was kicked off with a welcome by Isabella Tulloch Gallego, Jo Verrent from Unlimited and Sebastian Warrack of Wiltshire Creative. 

Image of Jo Verrent, a white woman with short grey hair, speaking into a microphone.

They spoke of Wiltshire Creative’s merger (Salisbury Playhouse and the Arts Centre Salisbury International Arts Festival) and the focus on what cultural organisations might do to support each other in change. 

The main discussion in this event was on structure and support  Does size matter? How can small and large organisations learn from each other? Are small arts and cultural organisations more open to actively making access happen rapidly for disabled artists than larger institutions? Do larger organisations lack flexibility or willingness? How can we learn to scale up change more quickly?”

Image of the audience engaged in conversation and watching the panelHere are some of the impressions and quotes I took away from the discussion 

Jo Newman, Wiltshire Creative Associate Director, pointed out that smaller organisations might provide more opportunities for onetoone communication and that there is more flexibility for direct communication while bigger organisations might be slower. For example, Arts Council England can be perceived as slow to respond, but they might be where good practice sits. “There’s sometimes a fear of getting it wrong… I think that’s where large organisations can learn from small organisations – who are just getting it done, Jo said.  

David Dixon made the remark that the further you go down these dark tunnels of administration, the further removed you are from the coal face” and “as a small organisation were directly at the coal face… we ask our artists what do you need how can we help you’ and they tell us directly. 

David Dixon used some metaphors which stuck in my mind. He said“Organisations are often described as ships… the larger the ship, the harder it is to turn around. They need small ships to help them and to slow them down… The larger the organisation, the greater momentum which means it just can’t respond very easily.” 

However, it was also pointed out that merging can mean a bigger audience reach, and it can be a case of survival. Under an umbrella organisation, individual identities can be maintained. The challenge is that there will be higher expectations, having a bigger profile might mean managing expectations, maybe in terms of the journey towards accessibility. 

Jo Verrent asked Shawanda Corbett where her needs have best been met in terms in access: “The larger organisations because they have the funding to make it wheelchair accessible”.  HoweverShawanda also said that in terms of diversity, she found the smaller organisations more flexible in access of thought. And as to the question as to why smaller organisations are more able to deal with diversity, she offered the opinion that there are less middlemen ” She also said that she thought that the UK sector is better than the USA in terms of access.  

I came away from the discussion realising that there is a need for bigger organisations as well as the smaller ones, in terms of flexibility and resources. And it is not just for the art and cultural sector. Collaboration is the key and allowing for flexibility. In terms of accessibility, it can be difficult to explain the nitty gritty of access needs to non-disabled led large organisations that have systematic processes in place for staff. For example, I had to explain how I was once refused access to a university theatre as the accessible entrance was locked. The security guard was convinced I needed permission to have access where non-disabled people could just walk in. He said he had no instructions to allow me in. 

He could not see the irony that my PA could get in without any issue. Later, I spoke to the university staff and advised that they might be actually not be compliant with the Equality Act 2010. And that they should put in an intercom system at least whereby a wheelchair user could at least communicate with university reception. They were receptive to the advice and thanked me saying they would act on it. Often times, it also need the disabled person to know their rights in terms of access in order for a demand on resources which should be made available to them.