Creative Minds North: an arts conference with a difference

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Creative Minds North in Manchester was the first ever arts conference entirely devised and delivered by learning disabled artists. Last month, over 200 attendees from learning-disabled and non-learning-disabled arts organisations across the North, including West Yorkshire Playhouse and The Lowry, met to consider four themes: How is great art created? What does the term professional mean? How can the work of learning disabled artists be best talked about? How can we help the wider arts world to commission the work? Bella Todd considers what was learnt from the day, ahead of Creative Minds’ fifth and final conference in Birmingham on October 4.

Creative Minds Audience Warm Up

Audience warm up at Creative Minds North. Photograph: Martin Livesey, Venture Arts

Ownership is crucial

Creative Minds has always been steered by the ideas, interests and life experience of the people who set it up back in 2013: a group of learning-disabled artists who were fed up of not being taken seriously. Over the last three years, conferences in Brighton, Bristol and Ipswich have showcased work by visual artists and performers with learning disabilities. The sector and wider arts world have been invited to discuss issues of quality, leadership and inclusion. Awareness has been raised and links have been forged.

But it has sometimes felt uncomfortably as though we were talking about, rather than with, the artists in question. For Creative Minds’ fourth and penultimate conference, planning and delivery was placed entirely in the hands of the artists. Largely departing from the staged debates of previous conferences, the resulting event may have been lower on thematic rigour and soundbites. But it was stronger in atmosphere and ethos. As Amanda Sutton of lead partner Venture Arts commented, “It shows they really do need to be taken seriously in the arts.”

It ain’t all in the mind

A physical and vocal warm-up led by Debbie Bell Hutchinson of Gateshead’s The Lawnmowers seemed like a bit of fun. But it contained an important message: you weren’t going to get the most out of this conference unless you were prepared to use your bodies and voices as well as your minds. Artists with learning disabilities may be demanding analytical engagement, it suggested – but not at the expense of other modes of communication and expression.

A wicked sense of humour going untapped

My first impression from Creative Minds Manchester was of a great unleashing of humour. Ignorance was a key target. In an opening skit, Karen Flood of First Step, and Karl Green of More Music, posed as newsreaders delivering a series of patronising headlines. ‘Man, 39, weaves basket as therapy’, read one, drawing a particularly loud snort from the audience. “We’re fed up of people patting us on the head, saying ‘oh your work is amazing’, when it’s not” summarised Flood with Liverpudlian deadpan – well, not always, anyway. “This is not therapy as I am not ill!” concluded Green.

This was also the first time I’ve laughed out loud in a gallery. Or at least a satirical mock-up of a gallery. Inspired by Tate Modern director Francis Morris’ recent comments on ‘Diversity and the Institution’, artists from Venture Arts and Liverpool’s Bluecoat wanted us to rethink visual arts spaces. They had created an installation expressing their experience when visiting traditional galleries. In the ‘Main Gallery’, reproductions of famous old artworks were covered with signs saying ‘Please do not touch!’ and ‘No noise!’ Long blurbs read ‘jargon jargon jargon jargon jargon’. The sign to the Community Gallery (to which, we were to suppose, all work by learning-disabled artists was confined), was tucked away in a corner. ‘Take the stairs to the 100th floor,’ it read. ‘Then go through a maze, then through the red door, then go back to the beginning, then past the no entry sign, then through the pink door on the ceiling…’ What a brilliant use of visual art itself to comment on the way in which it is so often segregated and rendered inaccessible.

Leslie Thompson

Artist Leslie Thompson with his live drawing at Creative Minds North. Credit to Martin Livesey, Venture Arts

Every conference should have a resident artist

Especially if it’s Leslie Thompson. A visual artist with a learning disability and a gift for figurative observational line-drawings à la Grayson Perry, Thompson captured the comings, goings and conversations of the day from a vantage point in the foyer. He used to use wax crayons, he told us in a short film. These days he uses felt tips and pencils. I would like to have heard more from the enigmatic and supremely stylish Thompson about his experience of the day – but perhaps it was all there in the animated detail of his finished crowd scene.

Why debate a question when you can role play it?

The lack of critical engagement with this work by learning-disabled artists has been a common thread linking all the Creative Minds conferences. Mind The Gap decided to do what they do best, and tackle it with an interactive role-play. The scene: the theatre bar after a Mind The Gap performance. Resident artist Jez Colborne was handing out feedback forms. Daniel Foulds played an audience member reluctant to be honest. “They had a go, that’s what matters,” he told his neighbour, before writing ‘it was good’ on the form. Audience members were offered the chance to pause the scene and make suggestions. One wanted to change the wording of the form to solicit more thoughtful responses. Another tried to persuade Foulds that critical feedback is helpful. Yeh, he said, but he didn’t want to hurt the actors’ feelings: “It’s when they get home, that’s what I worry about”. Eventually it was suggested that Foulds could start by asking questions about the company, showing interest and informing himself about their work. As I left the session, his character was listening attentively while Jez told him about the evolution of Mind The Gap and its most recent national tour.

Post-it notes are past it

It’s now virtually impossible to attend a conference without being asked to capture your thoughts on a post-it note. To investigate the meaning of ‘quality’, The Lawnmowers and Lancashire’s DIY Theatre opted for leaf and tree root shapes instead, in a practical workshop based around the ‘Qualitree’. We were asked to consider what nourishes great art, why we make it in the first place, and what hinders it. The approach was inventive, and delivered by a blonde-wigged Andrew Mcleod (posing as a professor) with a nice touch of anarchy. But the end result was still written observations squeezed onto paper. Can Creative Minds Midlands find new ways of capturing participants’ reflections that aren’t reliant on the written word?

Jez Colborne Creative Minds

Jez Colborn performs at Creative Minds North. Photograph: Amy Elison, Venture Arts

Jez Colborne and Sarah Gordy are brilliant ambassadors

Stepping behind his keyboard with an easy stride, Colborne performed a medley of songs and talked through highlights from his career – accompanied by production shots showing him in action in company productions Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, Jekyll and Hyde, and his own devised shows. Colborne spoke about how the Arts Council had made his dream of crossing the US on a Harley Davidson come true. “Look at my ability, not my disability,” he concluded to loud applause.

Actress Sarah Gordy, who has Down’s syndrome, has had a very different kind of career, but encountered similar prejudice. Her talk was illustrated by stills from primetime shows such as Call The Midwife and Upstairs Downstairs. “In the beginning, the stage managers and assistant directors were horrified when they saw me,” she recalled. “How were they going to keep on schedule with a main character with Down’s syndrome? I know this because they told me later. And now they want to work with me again. I earned trust.”

There can be a flip side to success stories

But Gordy isn’t satisfied. She was in a supermarket recently, she told us, when she was recognised by another customer with a learning disability. “You were brilliant on TV yesterday,” he told her. “But you don’t do us any favours. Your characters are always sad and vulnerable.” What he really wanted, he said, was to see her play a character with “a job, life and giggles”. And Gordy, to her credit, said she thought he was right. Where, she wanted to know, are the non-issue roles for actors with learning disabilities?

It’s a question of taste

There are as many different ways of making art as there are artists, and as many different responses as there are audience members. But when it comes to learning disability arts, there can be a tendency to assume a unified aesthetic and a restricted set of tastes. This isn’t helped by the fact this embattled sector has been understandably keen to support its own, at the expense of peer criticism. At Creative Minds Brighton, in 2014, despite craving nuanced critique from reviewers, the companies involved swapped enthusiastic but ultimately unhelpful ‘brilliant’s and ‘amazing’s about each other’s work. In Manchester, for the first time, I heard different reactions and dissenting voices.

A workshop with theatre company Dark Horse had most of the conference gamely up on their feet and following the artists’ physical cues to a classical chill-out soundtrack. But one artist told me it had reminded him of being at school. Likewise Cloudburst, a creative presentation of the day’s feedback by members of Headway Arts and Prism Arts, divided opinion. Some thought it made for uncomfortable viewing. Others loved its fragility and the offbeat chemistry of the performers. This felt like real progress. And with the fifth and final Creative Minds being organised by a committee of young people, divergent tastes and critical opinions will hopefully be in still more plentiful supply.