A recent exhibition in Edinburgh’s Gayfield Creative Spaces presented work by nine disabled artists who have recently completed a nine-month programme of mentoring and support from several high profile arts organisations in Scotland. Paul F Cockburn spoke with Robert Softley Gale, director of flip: Disability Equality in the Arts, who coordinated the programme.
Robert Softley Gale’s pillow must have an easy life, given how busy he usually is as a theatre writer, director, performer and producer. This last year has also seen much of his time taken up with a new mentoring programme organised through his company, flip: Disability Equality in the Arts.
Robert Softley Gale explains:
“We got the funding a year ago, from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, to run a mentoring programme for nine disabled artists who were at the point of becoming professional but were not quite there yet. Essentially, it’s one answer to the question: ‘Where will the next generation of disabled artists come from?’ Our idea was a programme where individual artists could develop not just their practice but also their career skills, their networking – all the other stuff that you have to do as an artist – so they can then make their own way.
“I think the environment is definitely different from when I was starting out. In some ways it’s better; we never had things like Unlimited when I was young! At the same time, organisations that were around then aren’t there any more – I spent two years at Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop working out how to be an actor, but that’s not around any more. The routes into an arts career are different now.
“We’ve worked with these nine artists, who between them cover a whole range of art forms and impairments, giving them very tailored support over the last nine months. In a lot of cases it was about us using our own networks and people we know. For example, Jane Wallman-Girdlestone, who is a published author, wanted to develop her craft. We’ve worked with the Scottish Book Trust quite a lot, so we got them together to provide some support. That’s basically been the last nine months – bringing people together and coordinating things. It’s been pretty full on.”
So, what happens now?
“We didn’t want this to be an ongoing thing that lasted forever; there needed to be a deadline, a point where we said: ‘OK, now you’re on your own. If you want to make it work, you have to make it work.’ But there will be another stage to this. We’re looking at how flip Artists fits into our work at flip, at whether Birds of Paradise Theatre Company, of which I’m co-Artistic Director, could be a home for it, or if we should create something bigger. All these things are up in the air, but there’s definitely been a great demand for it.
“Not just from the artists. Although the programme’s called flip Artists, it’s been as much about the organisations involved; they’ve really valued working with disabled artists, and hopefully they can now take that forward by themselves. This will definitely come back, but in what exact form, we’re not sure.
“Funders the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation are great in that they know it’s not about numbers. We’re not necessarily going to come out with nine highly developed artists, but there’s been a lot of anecdotal stuff that’s has been positive. The artists that we’ve worked with this year are now in a place where they can support other artists to develop their practice, so it might be a cascading thing where they in turn become mentors of younger or less experienced disabled artists.”