Breaking down barriers: Peter Heslip talks about Autism, leadership and the visual arts

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Peter Heslip who is Director of Visual Arts at Arts Council England made public his autism diagnosis earlier this year. He spoke to Colin Hambrook about his reasons for doing so, his thoughts about representation of autism in the visual arts and his hopes for the arts sector in opening up new conversations.

A painting of a figure floating, face up in the sea.

Sharif Persaud, Egypt, 2016 ©Project Art Works

For many people who embrace an autism diagnosis later in life, it’s a long and difficult struggle to get the assessment in the first place and then to work out appropriate support mechanisms. It was no different for Peter Heslip, involving a multi-year wait to work with a clinical team before finally getting an invitation for an assessment. Once the diagnosis had been made it then took a lot of further thought and deliberation to ‘come out’, complicated by the fact that it happened at the time of going into the first lockdown:

“I contracted pretty serious COVID-19 early in the pandemic, at the same time as my diagnosis process. It was also when healthcare workers received guidance that autistic people with COVID-19 would be labelled ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ if they had to be admitted into hospital. Overnight, I found myself exposed to a very real kind of double jeopardy. So that was my first introduction to life being ‘officially’ autistic. It really brought into stark contrast all the privileges I’d enjoyed without this label – as a white, cis, male who was perceived as ‘able / neurotypical’.

“I’ve come to understand this moment at the start of 2020 was just another chapter in a very dark history of autistic people’s rights. We grow up with a narrative around modern history being about social progress, things getting continually better for people. The reality is that the things in society that lead to systemic deprivation of rights are very deep rooted and manifest themselves in different ways in every period. We have a job to do to meet them each and every time they take a new contemporary form and head them off.”

headshot of a white man with beard and moustache

Peter Heslip

Ultimately Peter was determined that the diagnosis and being honest and open could lead to positive change, despite the fact that the overriding advice from other members of the autistic community was to remain in the closet:

“The autistic community is an amazing and diverse place, full of really caring people. I asked for advice on how to weigh up sharing my diagnosis at work and was discouraged  90% of the time from doing this. I know that advice came out of fear and from others’ direct personal experience of discrimination: being missed over for opportunities and promotions, losing a job after sharing a diagnosis, being excluded, and treated differently. Sometimes indirectly, but sometimes overtly. The data around outcomes for autistic and disabled employees backs this up as well. There are a tremendous number of good reasons to choose to not make people aware of a diagnosis. Many people’s experience is very negative, especially when it comes to work culture, policies, and the HR system. When you hear so many stories, it really isn’t surprising so many autistic people struggle with employment.”

However, despite Peter’s initial reservations about the risks, the response Peter received from within Arts Council England has been overwhelmingly constructive and positive:

“I’ve been incredibly touched and encouraged by people’s response to my declaration. And again, it’s empowering to feel that you’re joining a community. The other thing that really inspired me to go public was this sense that we collectively have a job to do. For me it was a realisation that not speaking out and not owning the condition was causing the perpetuation of shame and stigma around Autism. That is not to say it is the fault of autistic people that the stigma exists, but as someone with a voice and a privileged position of power in this industry I feel compelled to break a silence which enables stigma to flourish.

“Professional autism advisors tell their clients, for good reason, not to declare their diagnosis to their employer or to do so selectively. Recent stats have revealed that non-declaration, which I suspect comes from fear of the known risks, is endemic right across the sector. The last census revealed that autistic people in the UK encounter the largest employment gap (fewer than 2 in 10 of us are currently employed).”

“My privilege to speak up also comes from being lucky to have an employer which has invested a lot of time into critically examining itself and to thinking about its leadership role in this space. We at Arts Council can see we have a lot of work to do here but are setting out to accelerate the pace of change as part of our Delivery Plan and Ten Year Strategy – supported by a staff disability peer network and our Trustees who advise us from a new Disability Advisory Group.”

A person stands upon a rocky beach. They are wearing a leather coat and a coloured face mask that obscures their features.

Sharif Persaud, film still from The Mask, 2017, 3 mins 46 seconds. © Project Art Works

“Part of making the diagnosis public for me is to push forward on a specific conversation about leadership and autism. While this has been a year in which people have got more comfortable sharing their struggles, I have to be honest that it is not always easy talking to others about doing things differently; to open up about what helps me perform at my peak. We need to look at the old paradigms and expectations for leaders and managers – what you would read in a job description – which often sit directly at odds with certain traits of this condition and what others expect of autistic people.”

“The social model of disability acknowledges the barriers to inclusion exist within our organisations and society’s day to day culture and practises; we need leaders and managers who are able to directly model different kinds of workplaces, processes and values. I’ve been working directly with a small network of other autistic leaders and managers to think about what is keeping people out, keeping autistic people progressing and keeping expectations low. There is work to do to revisit the aspects of accepted leadership models which have come from a neurotypical framework – our network is interested in meeting people doing work on that.”

Heslip sees a need for deeper thought and care taken with autistic people who are making art. Questions arise around which artists are getting shows and how people are supported across their careers. At the same time, he is eager to convey a sense of the danger he feels in focusing on the creatives who are missing from our institutions through a deficit lens:

“The creative sector has the power to accelerate change in attitudes and social norms for the better. A lot of recent public discussion and debate has rightly concerned representation of autistic people in the media by non-autistic people and our portrayal. It feels two steps forward, one step back. From my perspective, the visual arts sector is just taking the first step forward – we need to talk about presence and validation.”

“There is quite a bit of programming which looks very dated. Disabled artists have, for instance, been asking for some time why they are still being labelled ‘outsiders’? This is not a self-chosen movement. It is an academic concept invented over 50 years ago. They are asking why their work is still being shown in the foyer, hung as an education project, only presented within group shows with novelty framing devices that foreground difference and perpetuate otherness? What it really comes down to is simple: consistently giving autistic artists the time, space, and opportunity. It means investing the same amount of care and attention in presenting the work of neurodivergent people as you would do with anybody else. Until this happens those lived experiences are yet to be validated.”

“2019 was a breakthrough moment as the first time a major London gallery gave an autistic artist a solo show. Sharif Persaud’s exhibition ‘Have You Ever Had’ was on show at Autograph gallery last summer. With the support of Project Art Works the show has broken a second barrier in becoming the first national touring exhibition of an artist with complex support needs. It is not only an historic event but also artistically, a seminal show, asking people to slow down and invest time understanding Sharif’s powerful vision and humorous voice.

“I know from having spoken to Director Mark Sealy that through getting to know and work with Sharif, his team has fundamentally transformed how they approach making exhibitions and working with artists. Audiences I spoke to reflected on how rewarding it is to spend time in the presence of this body of work and gain an insight from someone who has a different perspective on life.

“This investment in a really significant British artist was a first as far as I’m aware. As an autistic person, it gave me a lump in my throat, walking into the gallery space for the first time, not having seen an autistic artist given that kind of space and respect before. I know that some struggle with the fact that autism is a broad phenotype but the reality is that even as a condition with wide ranging expressions in people there are so many things we share in common. This is true when I think about my own family across generations. One of those common aspects is lack of understanding and the social barriers.”

Heslip is especially keen to talk about the work of nonverbal artists within this mix, leading to a conversation about curation via the senses. I asked him what he thought of an exhibition call-out from Pyramid Arts in Leeds looking for works on the colour orange, the sound of pink noise and the word ‘ouch’.

“One of the greatest things about visual arts – its strength – is how accessible it is for those who may not be as strong with words. I’m inspired by a new raft of innovative approaches that reflect a wider range of talents of those who communicate by choice or necessity through forms other than the spoken and/or written word.

“Many autistic people have particularly acute visual perception/thinking skills so it should be unsurprising that many excel in this field. What I love about that Pyramid Arts project is the way in which the frame of interest starts with our perception of the world. There is a place for conceptual/critical art reading, but we may have moved into a period where this is not the dominant model. For example, Sonia Boué’s recent piece on dismantling intellectual ableism challenges value systems which prioritise verbal over nonverbal/nonspeaking artists. It feels like this conversation is just starting for many.

“Programmers struggle to reconcile ‘disability’ with ‘quality’. Others have expressed discomfort with nonverbal artists’ ‘intent’. Lynne Cooke’s interview with Darby English, another important curator in this space, is one of the first times I’ve heard people start to unpack this issue of intent. That conversation got me thinking about the double standards which may exist for neurodivergent people. One could argue that pains are often taken to ensure neurotypical artists are able to present their work in a way that escapes a literal meaning, in which the artists intent is left open enough to allow audiences space to imagine. Oddly though, people feel uncomfortable when the ‘artistic intent’ of a non-verbal and or neurodivergent artists is unclear or not available in literal terms.”

Heslip sees it as a double-edged sword when artists are viewed specifically through a disabled frame. As much as identity is important in terms of the desire to achieve wider and more meaningful representation his feeling is that we need to acknowledge the pitfalls that history points to when creatives become subject to fashion, rather than being part of a sustained inclusive approach.

a well lit exhibition hall with paintings hanging upon the wall. A white oblong box sits in the centre.

Sharif Persaud: Have You Ever Had exhibition at Autograph, London, 28 February – 23 May 2020. Curated by Mark Sealy. Photograph by Zoë Maxwell. 2020. Curated by Mark Sealy. Photograph by Zoë Maxwell.

“I’m a little bit conflicted in that I see a danger as many organisations suddenly seek to become more inclusive. As a funder it can be hard not to worry about cynical efforts. Institutionally, if you only talk about an artist in terms of what makes them different, it then becomes an easy way to include and then in future to exclude them. Lynne Cooke’s touring show ‘Outliers and American Vanguard Art’ catalogued the sector’s troubled relationship with difference, the multiple cycles of inclusion and exclusion in galleries during the 20th century in America. ”

“Clearly this is not an either/or scenario. It’s important we recognise the work of artists which directly tackles disability issues and give disabled artists agency and space to talk about their experiences of ableism. I am deeply inspired by David Hevey’s teams’ achievements at Shape Arts’ with the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive.  There is a proud tradition in the UK of how the arts have opened conversations about disability rights and equality. We have to do what we can to preserve that rich heritage so we can give a new generation access to that work.”

“By the same token, I strongly feel that to find that sustainability, artists who identify as disabled people aren’t always being framed in terms of Disability Rights, or through a disability lens. That can be a very limiting thing to do. As individuals we have many stories to tell and more to offer than the things that boil down to what makes us different. Encouraging institutions to seek out different kinds of relationships with artists and to have a truly representative workforce, is the only way we’ll break down the divide that exists in terms of what’s seen as mainstream work, and then the niche that is everything else.”

“While there is still so much to do, I smell change in the air. In October 2021 alone you could see Ntiense Eno-Amooquaye’s solo show at Flat Time House (described by international curators as the ‘best thing they’ve seen all Frieze week’); Project Art Works artists at the Turner Prize at Herbert Gallery and at Hastings Contemporary; Nnena Kalu from ActionSpace featured in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2021. Our task is to preserve and develop this new spirit of inclusion and acceptance; to break the cycles of fad and fashion.”