Earlier this year I did a Clore Intensive – a 2-week residential course for leaders in the cultural sector. This course has allowed me to think differently about things. About many things in fact, particularly to do with leadership and the cultural sector. So it kind of did what it said on the tin – which was, and is, great.
I am an aspiring leader at the beginning of this journey – still, a solo freelance artist so a limited in leadership opportunities in the traditional sense.
I know what my leadership style is, who I get on better with, who I find particularly difficult to get on – professionally and ‘type wise’ according to which ever systemic thinking you choose to use. It wasn’t just professional development – it never is on these courses – and let’s face it if after 2 weeks on an intensive residential course you have no more insight than with which you came, then you must have been sleeping with your eyes open or you weren’t really present.
So I learnt a lot. No surprise that I clearly entered the course as a Northerner with two huge chips on his shoulders – around class, northerness, southerness, privilege, elitism, exclusion, power – just for starters. I realised these had driven me but were now holding me back. This also afforded me the opportunity to think about my deficits, of which there are many. I am good at getting people on the bus with my enthusiasm, I am definitely not a person who is good at figures or dotting the I’s. I am also someone who finds it hard not to wear their heart on their sleeve, I tend to shoot from the hip and therefore I tend not to be the most strategic person in the world. My passion gets in the way of politics. To this end I always have in the back of my mind, will I ever work again, am I on the list of being difficult to work with, have I just shot myself in the foot again?
One of the things I have been thinking about recently is Unlimited. It is an amazing program and currently has a call out for expressions of interest. There really is nothing like Unlimited as a commissioner of disabled artists who make, or want to make, high-quality work. Unfortunately, this program is due to close in 2020. I guess all good things have to come to an end. It begs the question ‘Is there artistic life and opportunities for disabled artists after Unlimited’?
I hope the answer is yes. I know that the ecology for performance is comparatively healthy. This is due, in part, to the investment in time and money to ensure that there has, and is a, rigorous process of critical dialogue within the areas of dance and performance by disabled artists or disabled led companies. As I often say, mainstream theatres across the land are much happier now than they were to put on such work because they successfully sell, and often sell out, to mainstream audiences who want to see good work. My dissatisfaction that this is not the case for the visual arts is well documented. I do not want to tread that path again here.
What concerns me here is legacy. What happens after 2020 when the team behind Unlimited hang their commissioning coats up and leave the proverbial smoky back room speakeasies for the last time, closing the doors and calling time on the organic orange juice and vol-au-vents?
Prior to Unlimited, I had never worked with a producer. Don’t get me wrong, I like having a producer. Or rather I like having someone who I am collaborating with who can cope with the stuff I can’t. Someone who can field the trickier questions, has complimentary skill sets, and who I feel safe with. But why as an artist should I have a producer? Why can’t I have a curator to work with, that is after all the model which visual artists exist within.
A curator is not like a producer and vice versa, it is not just a case of semantics. You can’t just swap one for another freely, they are not easily interchangeable – I found this out with my experience of working at festivals in 2017 with Between Stillness and Storm – an Unlimited co-commission where I worked with Tim Shaw and was Produced by Kerry Harker.
The language of Festivals, theatre and performing arts is different to that of visual arts. Even now, several years into working with producers I still don’t know what I don’t know and realise I knew virtually nothing when I started deviating from the language and processes of the art world.
I use this as means of illustrating that knowledge is power. Knowing which questions to ask, or what you are entitled to or what you should or shouldn’t sign up to is important. It’s another form of the exclusion – inclusion paradigm.
I have always voiced my issues around the producer model favoured by Unlimited rather than the curator model. This is perhaps one of many reasons why performance has made significant strides in its development, exposure and quality and appeal. Still, there is no ‘curator’ within the Unlimited staff although many producers including a senior producer. And I want to be perfectly clear this is not a personal comment or issue – I am discussing the systemic approach and model here. Unlimited has had many ‘Trainee Producers’ but not one as far as I am aware of, ‘Trainee Curator’. Perhaps this is one of the varied reasons the object based visual arts field within disability arts/Unlimited has continued to drift in the backwaters of the arts programming and remains to be taken seriously by the mainstream galleries or a wider public beyond the galleries.
So come 2020 and the last loose change of Unlimited has been distributed what happens to the acquired knowledge?
Where will the knowledge gained over the previous 8 years lie. Where does it lie now? How accessible is it? Is it distilled down and controlled by too few gatekeepers? Post-2020 will disabled artists know who the allies are, who are good people to go to, who will help us develop? Will there be a point of contact for all the information, knowledge, relationships brokered by networks and organisations to be democratically dispersed to the artists. (Sadly, I feel like I’m at a worker’s revolutionary rally against the Autocrats circa October 1917).
To be honest, and unsurprisingly, I feel less worried for the theatre-makers, dancers and performers. I do however worry a lot for the artists. Perhaps I would worry less if a curator and gallery came on board for the final 18 months, perhaps I could allow myself to feel a little bit of hope for a sustainable future as a disabled visual artist/curator.
But it’s not just me, it’s everyone else too. All the other object-based visual artists who won’t have shown in a ‘real proper gallery’ in the way many performers have been able to develop and present their work on ‘proper stages’ at ‘proper theatres’ and experienced their moment/s in the ‘spotlight’. At times it feels like I am in an anechoic chamber, but I am sure I can hear the beginnings of echoes and that fills me with hope.
Disability Arts Online, in partnership with MAC Birmingham, will be hosting a Curated Conversation: Interrogating the (in)visibility of disabled artists, chaired by Aidan and featuring a panel including curator and writer, George Vasey; MAC visual arts producer, Jessica Litherland; and artists Sue Austin and Anna Berry.