a large church with hundreds of balloons holding Noemi Lakmaier up.
Unlimited commission ‘Cherophobia’ by Noemi Lakmaier at Sydney Opera House; image c. Prudence Upton

Unlimited: The Symposium – Introducing the ‘Art’ Chair

Unlimited is hosting a symposium on 4 and 5 September 2018 at the Unicorn Theatre, London to discuss the key issues, challenges and opportunities in and surrounding disability-led arts in the 21st century, which will lead into Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival (running from 5 to 9 September).  

The Symposium will be split into four sections – ‘Art’, ‘Equality’, ‘Attitude’, and ‘Future’ – each led by a prompt, as selected by you. Today, the Chair for the ‘Art’ section, Andrew Miller, introduces its panel, who’ll be discussing ‘How can disabled artists change the ‘mainstream’ arts sector?’.

Drawing from their own varied experience of the international creative industries our panel will address the following questions: Can disabled artists change the ‘mainstream’ from within, or does it end up changing us and our work? Are disabled artists supported to make art of quality and ambition and artistic innovation within the mainstream, or only in specialist disability specific settings? Is England’s ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ working?

The panel for this session are internationally acclaimed artist Jess Thom, aka TourettesHero, Finnish campaigners Sari Salovaara and Outi Salonlahti from Helsinki’s Culture for All, Marc Steene, Director of Outside In and composer Lloyd Coleman, Associate Music Director of the Paraorchestra and Friends, chaired by myself, UK Government Disability Champion for Arts and Culture Andrew Miller.

For some of us, the mainstream represents the very embodiment of “disabling”, but for others it’s the Valhalla of acceptance and recognition. Having worked in the mainstream for 30 years I know just how alluring and rewarding it can be, but also the price it extracts if you’re disabled.

Opinion has long been divided on whether disabled artists should fully embrace the mainstream and effect change from within or plough their own course, operating in an exclusively disabled-friendly environment and wait for the world to catch up. What is absolutely true is that there is no correct route and either option should be made available to us.

It’s also true that we are in the midst of a remarkable moment in time, where the mainstream is finally getting to grips with inclusivity. I would go further: there has never been a better time to be disabled and in the arts. The UK’s disability led sector and our disabled artists lead the world in the quality and invention of their work.

Moreover, we are seeing disabled artists disturbing mainstream culture and influencing artforms in ever more creative ways. Take the exciting work taking place in classical music in the South West of England. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s new ensemble Resound make their BBC Proms debut this summer under the baton of Changemaker conductor James Rose. The creation of the world’s first National Open Youth Orchestra in Bristol together with the work of the Paraorchestra are pioneering new instrumentation and commissioning new works for the classical canon. Our panellist Lloyd Coleman will tell us more about how disabled artists are invigorating classical music.

In theatre we are seeing a long overdue mainstreaming of disabled talent.  From Ramps on the Moon winning UK Theatre’s Best Touring Award for Tommy in 2017, to Jess Thom’s most recent work which gave Samuel Beckett’s Not I a radically new interpretation during its sold-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe and Battersea Arts Centre. Jess will share with us her experience of combining activism and art for both mainstream and disabled audiences.

Outsider Art is not an art movement or category that equates to others like Surrealism or Abstraction; it is a collectivising of difference. Marc Steene’s work at Outside In provides a platform for artists excluded from the art world, whether due to disability, health, social circumstance or isolation. Artists gaining critical acclaim such as Andrew Omoding, a learning-disabled artist from ActionSpace, Marc will share his experience of shifting attitudes and understanding in mainstream museums, galleries and the commercial art world to better support artists with a diverse range of life situations.

Internationally, despite widespread equalities legislation, many disabled artists struggle to have their voices heard. Sari Salovaara and Outi Salonlahti will join us from Finland where the mainstream has yet to adapt, where access to specialist arts education is limited and disability arts remain marginalised.

But some artists prefer to avoid the mainstream altogether, believing that it weakens their art and that more interesting breakthroughs occur outside of it. Many within the Disability Arts Movement – now recognised with its own archive – regarded collaboration with the mainstream as a “sell out”. So should we regard the mainstream as a hostile environment, a validation that requires too much compromise?

My own priorities as Disability Champion for Arts and Culture are focused on driving further change in the mainstream and shaped by my own experience of it. I am campaigning for better access together with improved training, employment and leadership opportunities for disabled talent.

I’ve noticed there is little consistency in disability arts policy across the UK. For example, there is no equivalent to the Arts Council England Creative Case in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Yet Wales has pioneered a free disabled access card, Hynt and Northern Ireland has a robust Charter in place to recognise outstanding practise for arts organisations.

So there is still much good practise to share, glass ceilings to shatter and arguments to win. But it helps to have allies in unexpected places.

Nothing screams ‘mainstream’ more redolently than Britain’s Got Talent and nothing excited me more than two exceptionally talented disabled comedians, Lost Voice Guy and Robert White coming first and second on Britain’s biggest tv talent show. With audiences of 11 million, it could be argued that one programme has done more to alter perceptions of disabled people in this country than anything since the 2012 Paralympics. It’s raised the stakes.

I’ve always believed that the UK arts sector has a duty to lead the development of disabled talent as a result of our significant public subsidy. But perhaps we have much to learn from commercial behemoths like Simon Cowell and ITV?

Andrew Miller is the Government’s Disability Champion for Arts & Culture, a National Council member of Arts Council England and the Arts Council of Wales and a non-executive director of UK digital arts agency, The Space.

Tickets for Unlimited: The Symposium are now sold out, but those of you who were unable to get tickets will still be able to watch and engage online – click here for more information!