Ashokkumar Mistry continues his DNR_RND series reimagining a more sustainable and equitable post-pandemic arts sector by discussing how the concept of ‘bridge organisations’ could help make better use of public arts funding and also support disabled artists to break out of the usual ‘bubbles’ they often get stuck in.
As someone who has always been interested in the careers of artists who are neurodivergent (ND) and disabled, I worry about this group of artists getting stuck within bubbles of virtue. By this, I refer to careers being stifled by only finding opportunities within the ‘disability arts’ part of the arts sector and not being able to break out into the mainstream. Looking at the opportunities available to and lack of presence of disabled artists and artists of colour, there is great inequality in the arts and much of it is the result of ineffective policy that is wedded to the idea that shovelling more money and resources into the very organisations whose presence and practices create inequality will somehow create equality. I believe there is a funding model and approach to disability that could help pop these bubbles of virtue and build bridges for disabled artists to cross into the mainstream more consistently.
The funding dilemma
Lets face it, arts funding can be crudely split into two main strands: core funding (regular funding and open project funding streams) and initiatives (specialised time-limited funds designed to ‘make a difference’). However, upon analysis, the distribution and use of core funding is repeatedly found not to be diverse and as a result, initiative funding such as Decibel or Elevate is put in place to right the wrongs. For the two-decades-plus I have existed in the arts sector, this cyclical trend has remained and time after time, these initiatives and schemes fail, because of three reasons:
- Change is defined by a hegemony, which insists on making people who don’t fit the system adapt themselves to do so, rather than making the system fit the people seen as outsiders.
- There has been a focus on creating specialist bubble organisations referred to as “diverse-led” organisations. However, in some cases, these organisations have the same values and prejudices as the rest of the sector that disenfranchise the majority of disabled artists. What’s more, the existence of these diverse-led organisations means much of the rest of the sector feel it is not incumbent upon them to drive change.
- Marginalised people are falsely seen as a minority and change is therefore considered a niche concern.
Bridging the gap
One thing I have been exploring is the role of disabled-led organisations, their work and the respect they have within the sector.
Each of these organisations such as DASH Arts, Shape Arts, Disconsortia, Disability Arts Online (DAO), the newly minted Unlimited and many others, have multifunctional roles such as advocacy, creative programming, development, support and many others. In terms of sector development, focused on access and disability awareness, the likes of DASH, and DAO are having to feel their way through as moving through a dark cave system without any lights. The onus is on disabled artists and disability-focused arts organisations to make sense of and try to change attitudes and practices as well as developing a creative programme and creating disability-specific arts opportunities for disabled artists.
These organisations are also sometimes seen as ‘less professional’ and branded community organisations. At times, one will also come across assumptions (amongst people working in mainstream arts organisations) that disability-focused arts organisations don’t know much about art and are there to get the crip crowd in, or teach mainstream organisations how to do access or understand the social model. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as all of these disability-focused arts organisations have their own successful creative programmes.
Having a creative programme, dealing with advocacy, sector development and artist development is burdensome which is why I am proposing that what we need is to create disability-focused Bridge Organisations, similar to the ten regional bodies created for children and young people, to take the heavy lifting of advocacy and sector development and refocus diversity and access as a sector-wide responsibility.
The bridge organisations I have researched act as a conduit for funding and are there to strategically connect young people to arts organisations. The key thing to remember is that bridge organisations don’t undertake any of the delivery themselves and instead rely on the arts organisations to invest and learn how to engage with young people. Bridge organisations do not need to keep applying at the end of each funding cycle which provides stability. Having bridge organisations for disability and diversity more broadly will help to plug the holes in the cyclical trend of ‘core’ and ‘initiative’ funding described above.
The bubble trap
It is still the case that ND/Deaf/disabled artists (and ND/Deaf/disabled people in general) have a very limited presence within the broader arts sector. So, when these artists are put in front of a run-of-the-mill arts organisation, the arts organisation often does not know what to do with them. They can’t understand what they want or how to interpret their work without being patronising. Some people also suggest (off the record) that part of the problem could be a fear of getting things wrong or falling foul of a disability rights-focused social media mob. I have noticed people looking taken-aback when I strongly identify as disabled or neurodivergent. Some disabled artists even worry that if disability and neurodivergence are seen as a potent political statement rather than an acknowledgement of self, then organisations will either stereotype them or avoid considering them.
I myself, try to avoid making work directly about my disability, though all of my work has coded within it traits of my disability and difference to the people around me, but I do identify as disabled and neurodivergent (sometimes militantly). There is definitely a disconnect between me calling myself disabled or neurodivergent and a portfolio of work that does not talk about disability in the traditional way nor using the preconceptions of disability. Pain has no currency in my work nor does negative experiences but as soon as I say ‘disabled’ to a mainstream arts organisation, there is a perplexed look on a programmer’s face as they cannot see how ‘disabled’ can be sold to an audience without the pain aesthetic.
This raises several questions. What kind of artwork are artists who strongly identify with their disability/neurodivergence meant to make? Are we meant to make work that only explores our marginalisation? Do we not have the right to right to be understood in the same way as any other artist? What kind of art could an artist with a disability or neurodivergence make if ableism and negative preconceptions of disability didn’t exist? Furthermore, what would an institution programme if they consciously avoided either side of the ableist narrative? One could easily substitute the words disability or neurodiverse with black, Asian, queer, transgender or working class but the key point is that people with protected characteristics should be in control of those characteristics and not defined by them.
Diversity shouldn’t just be a specialism
The way our arts sector works is to funnel people into bubbles through discrimination. Prejudice is sometimes knowingly used as a filter to push people into bubbles from which it is difficult to emerge. An example is some of my approaches to galleries over the years. Presenting a pdf of my work to a range of galleries, the vast majority would not respond. However, the framing of the rejections of those that did respond was even more telling. All of these galleries assumed that my work was based on race issues, stated that my work did not fit the kind of work they showed and all suggested that I speak to the same ‘diversity led’ art gallery who I had no interest in working with, as it wasn’t actually relevant to the work I was presenting (not to mention a previous negative experience with them). In essence, the galleries used a ‘diversity’ (effectively racist) filter to make assumptions about my work, suggesting they didn’t need to concern themselves with issues around race equality and were trying to define where my work should be shown.
So, the question is, how do we pop the bubbles and allow artists with a range of characteristics to graze across the sector and beyond bubbles?
When we apply labels like disbaled, black, Asian, emerging or young artist, then an organisation’s policy can be used to discriminate against particular types of work using a veil of legitimacy. This is because they are allowed to make the case that their organisation does not have a specialist focus on or skills to address said protected characteristic and the artist can be gleefully redirected to a specialist organisation.
What the organisations don’t realise is that although they feel that it is their right to dismiss disability or race as a programming focus, this policy goes against the equalities act. The question I’ve often asked myself is why funders allowed these organisations to see factors of marginalisation as specialist concerns and not core responsibilities for all. Arts Council England’s new investment principles attempt to address this, however, the proof of change will manifest through how disabled artists are engaged by arts institutions.
With bridge organisations focused on disability or diversity in general we can start to break some of the cycles of a lack of diversity in the sector and look at long term structural reform. I am not advocating for getting rid of any of the disability-focused organisations we have, but instead, let them function as arts organisations without having to worry about sector development.
The point I am trying to make is that disabled and neurodivergent artists don’t need pigeonholes. We need to be connected with arts organisations (both mainstream and disability-focused) that understand equity. We need to be able to work wherever we want in the sector without someone telling us we are in the wrong place or making the wrong kind of work. Neither do we want to be locked into initiatives to survive or be counted.
In other words, we need bridges, not bubbles.