As Unlimited opens another funding round, Senior Producer Jo Verrent outlines the kinds of work Unlimited funds, and explains why artists should determine the work they want to make, not funders…
When I meet artists, I often get asked ‘what kind of work should I apply to Unlimited with?’ and I always give the same reply: ‘The work you want to make’.
Unlimited wasn’t set up to fund a specific type of work – neither particular artforms or particular themes. The reason for this is simple, we don’t think we should determine the work that disabled artists want to make (nor does Arts Council England who created the Unlimited brief that we deliver).
In an ideal world, no one would tell an artist in what form to create work, what type of materials to use, or what topics they could or couldn’t tackle – so why should we be any different? And in my experience, the minute you tell an artist to do something, they’ll often either ignore you or come up with a brilliant response that teeters on the boarders of what is and what isn’t allowed anyway. That, for me, is one of my favourite things about art – its ability to give a glimpse of fresh perspectives in unpredictable ways.
Some artists set their own boundaries – they may have venues they have in mind for their work, and so create work that might fit such spaces and logistics. Others just come up with an idea they want to realise, and then work backwards from that concept to find places where that work might fit. No one needs to apply to Unlimited with a confirmed touring schedule which hopefully frees up people to think creativity and focus more clearly on the idea rather than the logistics.
Some disabled artists make brilliant and provocative work about disability – confrontational and radical. Others may make work that is just as brilliant – but set on challenging in other political arenas. Yet others choose to focus on different goals – pushing boundaries in form, aesthetics, audiences. We don’t feel that one type of art, or one type of audience, is any better than another. We might all have personal preferences but those are left at the door when it comes to selection time (NB none of the staff linked to Unlimited have a vote).
So what does Unlimited focus on?
Our first criteria is that the work has to be disability-led. By this, we don’t mean that artists can’t work with non-disabled collaborators or with companies and partners that are led by non-disabled people, we mean that the creative control, the drive behind the work, has to come from disabled people themselves. There are many brilliant inclusive companies and many artists who want to work in this way, and that’s fine. It’s just that’s not what we were set up to fund. We aren’t the only funder out there so there’s plenty of scope to apply to other places for such work. Equally there are a number of disabled artists who don’t want to apply to anything that’s ‘disability-focused’ and that’s fine too. No one is forced to apply!
We’ve been really pleased by the number of artists who’ve chosen Unlimited as the place to accept the ‘disability label’ for the first time – either artists who’ve gain late diagnoses or artists who’ve stayed away due to the (entirely wrong) assumption that the disability label was linked to work that wasn’t quite up to scratch.
Having said that, we don’t dictate how artists describe themselves in their own marketing materials. Many artists we fund do state they are disabled artists on their own marketing, and some do not. It’s all about personal choice. However, by applying to Unlimited, any successful artist will be named on our site and we only fund disability-led work.
Our second criteria is ‘quality, innovation and ambition’ This in itself can be quite contentious – who decides what quality is? What do we mean by innovation? Just how ambitious do you have to be?
We determine quality in relation to the work itself – so if it’s an application to write a book for children, will it be high quality in relation to other literature for that audience? If it’s for a piece of small scale touring theatre, will it be high quality in relation to similar works and so on. That’s why our selection panels are big (and each includes at least 50% disabled people), ensuring we have a wide range of opinions to draw upon – after all, everyone’s opinion will be different. It’s also why we have independent assessors who look at the work we fund and examine its quality in relation to the work being made across the cultural sector within the UK (and to date, the work we’ve funded has been coming out of this process very well!)
Innovation and ambition is both about the sector and the artist. When Arts Council England decided to set up Unlimited as a programme, they didn’t want it to fund artists or companies to do ‘more of the same’ – as for that, artists can apply directly to them. Instead they wanted Unlimited to enable artists to stretch, take risks and be at the forefront of change. This stretch might be in relation to the form they work in, the audiences they reach, the technology they use and so on. This might not be about huge shifts or going up a scale, it might conversely be about making a small but distinctive change to an artist’s practice, or taking work to smaller audiences in unusual spaces.
Ultimately, Unlimited wants to fund extraordinary work across all art forms and for all audiences. We want to show that disabled artists can achieve in all aspects of the cultural sector and – with the right access and support – create work that is absolutely on par with that being made by any other group of artists. Could that be you? Our next application round opens on 1st September 2017.