Europe Beyond Access: disabled artists claim stages across Europe

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Europe Beyond Access is a four-year international collaboration between seven major arts organisations from across Europe, co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Commission. Now at its halfway point, we share some of the key outcomes, successes and how it is continuing to shape change in Europe’s cultural sector.

White male wheelchair user balancing backwards on his wheels. Behind him he is supported in an embrace by a black male dancer

Holland Dance Festival’s EBA Duet, Momentum. Photograph: Sjoerd Derine

Disabled artists and companies in Sweden, Italy, Serbia, Poland, The Netherlands, Greece and Germany are creating highly innovative, genre-bending, fabulously unconventional work yet geographic dispersal and lack of international mobility for disabled artists has meant that these innovations often remain under the radar for the majority of theatres and dance houses. Europe Beyond Access has effectively said ‘This needs to change – these artists need wider recognition and to be taken seriously as what they are creating, now and in the future, holds immense value’.

Europe Beyond Access is the largest arts and disability programme that is being delivered across Europe, and is led by the British Council alongside Kampnagel, Per.Art, Holland Dance Festival, Onassis STEGI, Oriente Occidente Dance Festival, and Skånes Dansteater.

The first half of Europe Beyond Access focused on the international exchange of ideas and collaboration between disabled artists. This led to the delivery of three artist laboratories in Hamburg, Malmo and Maastricht. These labs, each documented in a short film, focused on a chosen theme:

Hamburg: The artistic leadership of learning-disabled artists – confronting the common experience of many learning disabled artists denied opportunities to leadership roles and predominantly participating in activities led by non-disabled facilitators. Visual description and enhanced transcript of Hamburg film available here.

Malmo: The disabled body in public space – addressing both the exclusion and yet hyper-visibility of disabled people in outdoor and public environments. Visual description and enhanced transcript of Malmo film available here.

Maastricht: Creating choreography that emerges from the meeting of different bodies – nurturing movement practices that is informed by disability arts and that celebrate diversity on stage. Visual description nd enhanced transcript of Maastricht film available here.

As well as these laboratories, Europe Beyond Access has delivered 9 artist residencies so far, supporting artists to travel between countries, spend quality time at a partnership organisation, develop their work, share their skills with local artists and begin to build international interest in their practice.

This building of audiences is a key part of the project, raising greater public awareness of the work that these artists are creating, and demonstrating to venues and festivals that there is a demand for their presence in theatres and on stages. This has not gone without attracting the attention of the media with the project gaining the first-ever published interview of a learning disabled artist in Serbia (Natalija Vladisavljević of Per.Art), an unmissable 4-page spread about Europe Beyond Access Ambassador Filip Pawlak (a disabled producer in Poland) in popular magazine Wysokie Obcasy, in-studio discussions on Serbian national TV, and Holland Dance Festival’s DanceAble symposium filling the front cover of Dans magazine in the Netherlands.

Female learning-disabled performer in red dress, group of other performers sit behind her

Dis_Sylphide by Sasa Asentic and Per.Art. Photograph: Anja Beutler.

Also helping to draw audiences to the work of these artists are videos and short films that Europe Beyond Access is making. Sign language introductions to the programme are available in five regional sign languages (Italian, Greek, British, Swedish and Polish) building a Deaf online audience of 31,847 people. When including the online audience reach for other commissioned films specifically highlighting disability access to Europe Beyond Access activities, this audience grows to 59,802 people.

When the programme was designed, it was important that none of the partners were solely focused on disability arts to ensure that their existing audiences were broad. There was recognition that within arts audiences, there are many people that wouldn’t previously consider attending a show from a disabled-led theatre company or leading with a disabled artist. Negative perceptions and assumptions around work by disabled artists were identified as a crucial barrier and so educating mainstream arts audiences became a focus.

Looking at the collective online reach of the project so far gives a good indication of how effective this campaigning has been. Given that the main social media platform being used for Europe Beyond Access is Facebook (with the partners’ audiences most commonly accessing content here), the collective reach totals 557,813 people so far with all of these audience members being shown high calibre, innovative, professionally shot work by disabled artists as well as thought-provoking interviews and articles.

Male dancer of South Asian descent interacts with white female wheelchair dancer

Artists interacting at the laboratory in Maastricht.

Perhaps some of the biggest in-roads being made in European conversations about arts and disability has been the unexpected outcomes of the project. These new relationships and initiatives have sprung up amidst the momentum that is growing. Emerging as a result of Europe Beyond Access has been:

  • A new Europe-wide Arts and Disability Cluster group that is shaping cultural policy and access to funding. They published their first report in early 2020 titled ‘Disabled Artists in the Mainstream: a new cultural agenda for Europe’.
  • In Italy, a partnership with the Italian Ministry of Culture, the founding of a new Italian Disabled Artists group (Al Di Qua) and the development of a Manifesto.
  • In Serbia, collaborative working between Per.Art and the 2021 Novi Sad European Capital of Culture, finding ways to embed Europe Beyond Access activities into future Novi Sad ’21 programming.
  • In Poland, a partnership with the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and continuing deeper commitment to increasing disabled access to the arts.
  • In the Netherlands, the launch of the Dutch National Inclusive Cultural Agenda which critiques the Dutch arts sector for not making more dedicated moves to making culture accessible to disabled audiences.
  • In Germany, a new group of 40 organisations so far committed to reducing the divide between disability-specific arts organisations and mainstream theatres and venues. This group is called the Aesthetics of Access cluster.

So what does the future hold for Europe Beyond Access?

As the programme moves into its later stages – culminating in 2022 – we are going to see more of a focus on public performances and touring (Covid permitting) with 10 new commissions being produced in total. So far, 120 disabled artists have presented their work to public audiences so that figure will exponentially grow as more artists are given a platform and opportunities to share their work.

There will be more films and campaigns further elevating the profile of disabled artists and working to counter the historic exclusion of these artists. There will be conferences and discussions working to educate audiences, share best practice and learning, and provide critical engagement with the work being produced. And there will be change – change that is only possible through a coordinated, partnership-driven approach – that this generation of disabled artists will be more broadly recognised for their creative innovations and that disabled audiences will have greater access to arts and culture.

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