Disabled playwright and theatre director, Vici Wreford-Sinnott writes about the legacy of disability arts in the North East region in relation to a recent round table discussion with a mix of eight ‘established’ and ’emerging’ artists.
I am passionate about being able to create phenomenal work in the best circumstances possible, on the most relevant and vital platforms, in a region full to the brim with rich and diverse cultural heritage. Despite my own half-century strong connections to the varied landscapes of the North East – the natural, rural, urban and industrial, the cultural, historical and political; the family life cycles, births and deaths – how can I possibly still feel that something is missing? And yet for disabled people, something is still missing.
Disabled-led arts across artforms are alive and kicking in the North East of England! It thrills me to be able to say that as we did have a few lean years. Previously, in the beginnings of the disability arts movement, the Northern Disability Arts Forum and the National Disability Arts Forum were founded and based in Newcastle. We also had Tyneside Disability Arts, Get Off Our Backs theatre company, The Fugertivs, The Lawnmowers, ARCADEA, Ambassador programmes and many individual artists and groups developed across the region. A region which is a mix of urban centres and vast expanses of countryside, peppered with rural villages. Tricky to get around at the best of times.
Disabled artists have continued to work hard here – but after a series of funding cuts to disabled peoples’ organisations in the 2000s, the community in the North East effectively dissolved, – and much of that work has been poorly resourced and often been under the radar in terms of profile. In spite of this, and in receipt of arts funding or commissions and support from ethically informed organisations, a tiny pool of disabled artists from the region have moved into national and international work, but it hasn’t been easy, and any illusions of that having been well-funded or sustainable are misplaced. It all feels very transient. As so many of us say, in the absence of development infrastructure and clear career paths, you have to be a full-time campaigner in addition to being an artist. Career progression opportunities still aren’t widely shared, often are not accessible, and historically many of them have not reached or included disabled artists.
Having once held a strategic role in the region – I was CEO of ARCADEA for six years – and then having returned to my own artistic practice as a theatre director and writer, I was fortunate enough to know how the funding world works to some extent. However, I certainly didn’t have mainstream connections, or a wide network of collaborators I could work with. Some of the artists I had supported at ARCADEA kept in touch, and as I developed new artistic projects, it became clear that after funding of ARCADEA was withdrawn, disabled artists felt increasingly isolated, so much so that some of them couldn’t create work at all. To physically meet as a community was no longer possible as the means of meeting access requirements had disappeared along with ARCADEA and other disabled peoples’ organisations. Sometimes disabled artists just did not have the information on how to apply for funding for their work, not even the information on where to begin, or where to ask for help.
Inevitably as time moved on, it wasn’t viable to think I could just focus solely on my own artistic output. The environment in which I, and others, were trying to make work just wasn’t accessible, and the arts broadly were still struggling to appreciate the different processes, content and forms in disabled-led arts, and to see the value in programming the work of disabled artists.
I was lucky enough to meet Annabel Turpin, CEO of ARC Stockton, who has been incredibly supportive and who is ethically committed to including the work of all people on ARC’s stages. I developed amazing strategic artistic work with ARC, which has now become a real home to many disabled artists, either through our Cultural Shift programme, through residencies, ARC getaways, commissions or being supported to develop work which would later be programmed. More and more disabled artists in the North East got in touch with us, and overwhelmingly were looking to feel less isolated, to have support to develop and create their work, and to feel that they had a voice in policy development and certainly a place at the table in ever-broadening discussions about ‘diversity’.
The eight of us at the round table: gobscure, Black Robin, Bex Bowsher, Lisette Auton, Aidan Moesby, Kev Howard, Pauline Heath and myself, reflect a broad range of artforms and experience. And there are many more like us out there. Some of us have worked for a long time in disability arts, some of us have straddled both disability arts and the mainstream, others are new to disability arts but have long held artistic talents. Some of us are really experienced but with little mainstream recognition, and also lack in profile in mainstream media and press. It’s almost impossible to get a review outside London, let alone a review of the work of disabled artists outside London.
So, at least half of us feel that after decades of accomplished work of merit, we are still regarded as ’emerging’ – meaning not yet emerged into the dominant arts world and therefore remain ‘beginners’, ‘not knowledgeable’, ‘not accomplished enough’: our artforms and our content are not included in the ‘respected / accepted pantheon’. All of us feel somewhat hidden or overshadowed. Every person attending around our new table that day, contributes exciting, excellent work to the arts, to the culture of 21st Century Britain, and is of significant value in its richness on many levels.
What’s missing then? As I said, we are making work often in spite of the existing system – there are no clear disabled-led funding initiatives with clear social model informed artistic policies, with room for exploration and interrogation, for clear artistic progression to national stages and galleries in a sustained way. Leaders in our sector remain in transient freelance positions as virtually nothing else is open to us. We’re not yet being appointed to running venues, as disability is so often conflated with a lack of capacity. A strategic systemic approach is required which involves mainstream venues and organisations leaving their egos at home and taking part in disabled-led initiatives to effectively and fully understand ableism in art and culture. The voices and work of North East artists is essential in this.
Some of us around the table, despite having been disabled people for years, didn’t even know disability arts was a ‘thing’ with a rich movement and heritage, as a result of the disappearance of infrastructure and lack of profile. Some people at the table had no idea there might be something to emerge within or from – as disability arts. They didn’t know that Arts Council England has an access fund which disabled people can request support from to make grant applications more accessible. So, how many more disabled artists are completely isolated? We can’t let that happen. Flags must be flown.
Our conversations were wide-reaching, sharing many stories of unsatisfactory mainstream initiatives aimed at disabled people, which had not been informed in any way by disabled people. When these programmes don’t run smoothly, we then become perceived and positioned as ‘difficult to work with’ or ‘complainers’ when drawing attention to access. Or when trying to open discussions about disability representation and aesthetics. All of us have a range of persuasive, pragmatic approaches to this. But the art of persuasion is exhausting, especially when it’s 24 hours a day, in all areas of our lives. This applied to both newer and more ‘established’ artists.
So it was important to me that ’emerging’, ‘experienced’ and ‘established’ (what do they mean, and in what context?) disabled people are at the new table we are making – a table which is open to many more disabled artists in our wonderful and vibrant region. I see the disability arts movement in a series of waves, like any movement, we create work, have discourse, things change in the political and social environment, new national policies emerge about us, without us, we evolve and move on and change as the world within which we find ourselves changes.
We consistently need a continuum of experience, of tried and tested, of tried and failed, and of new ideas, disability arts is a moving, living evolving movement. We are enriched by the new wave and are informed by the previous waves. I take hope from the fresh approaches, opinions and work of new wave artists, in the way that my work on its evolutionary path, is also part of the new wave.