Letter to the Editor: An urgent statement on Arts Council England’s Emergency Funding Package


Disconsortia, a consortium of disabled artists based in the North East of England here share their urgent concerns about the implications of Arts Council England’s Emergency Funding Package in light of the Coronavirus crisis.

Large paper boat with the word Disconsortia written on it

Disconsortia meet up. Photograph: Black robin

We have urgent concerns about the impact Arts Council’s Emergency Funding Package will have on disabled artists, and request that ACE press pause on decisions around Project (ACPG) and Develop Your Creative Practice (DYCP) funding strands, until a thorough Impact Assessment has been undertaken, which includes speaking with us as a matter of high priority. Significant and lasting equality measures need to be put in place now.

WE DO wish to acknowledge the compassion, hard work and swift response of Arts Council officers to support the organisations and artists of the arts sector. We acknowledge the long hours and difficult decisions, and the unprecedented circumstances we are all faced with.

Our particular area of concern relates to the suspension of ACPG and DCYP grants, given their importance in ensuring that the voices of disabled practitioners are heard in the arts and culture landscape of our nation. It has taken decades of campaigning and hard work to make the case for equality and access around our work, and yet we are still significantly under-represented in the arts evidenced in recent diversity research. We feel that the Emergency Funding Package (put together in good faith and with only good intentions) is unfairly weighted against disabled artists, practitioners, participants and audiences, and whilst providing immediate term short term solutions for many, it has much longer term impact on disabled artists, our equal place in the arts and hardship we will experience.

It is not our intention to create a divisive ‘them’ and ‘us’ scenario – sadly that inequality already exists for disabled people throughout society, which is why we require equality measures to be put in place in this new emergency scenario. Nor does our statement diminish the very real distress and hardship many people will be experiencing at this time – we are in solidarity with all artists and practitioners at this time, and hope they are with us. It is our responsibility to speak up for our community. Sadly, we also must openly state that we feel speaking out is not without its risks.

The following points outline our concerns.

1. The fight against entrenched negative societal bias: Disabled artists are only beginning to make a place in the arts world – so many activities, venues and opportunities remain completely inaccessible, either in terms of physical, sensory, neurotypical, and communication barriers, or, in terms of the entrenched systemic societal negative biases about the capacity and relevance of disabled people. We have fought hard for equality over five decades and we fear this decision not to honour the consideration of existing and new ACPG and DYCP applications will decimate both the careers of disabled artists and our viability to continue in the arts, removing us from much needed conversations.

2. Government response less likely to benefit disabled people in the arts: Disabled artists are much less likely to be included in the Government’s plans to benefit either as employees in the arts (as ACE recent diversity plan shows), but more importantly are much less likely to benefit from the package for self-employed freelance artists – we do not have the same opportunities as many are so inaccessible (in the ways outlined above), for commissions and for other funding. Only ACE provides access funds to make applications, and acknowledges the requirements that to be able to work in an accessible environment, attaches an access strand to the grants. Disabled artists are much less likely to have Access to Work packages as our careers are not as full time or well resourced as others – not because they are not professional or lack skill and talent but because of the barriers already stated – we are just less likely to have work.

3. Austerity: Disabled people have already been hardest hit by austerity, with worse to come after the crisis. This cannot be ignored in putting ACE support packages together.

4. Advocacy: There is not a body responsible for advocacy for disabled people, for support, to create accessibility of national life, no one with statutory responsibilities for disabled people – the arts then become literal advocacy for invisible voices. Protect this – its precious and essential. It is a literal lifeline for communities at risk.

5. Sustaining hard earned careers and visibility: Disabled artists are relying on those grants to both survive the current crisis, but also to keep working beyond the immediate term – we have to be able to come out of the other side, having been able to continue to build our careers/place (artistically but also as small businesses – all artists are small businesses with our own business plans – however informally conceived – and no-one is supporting that in a strategic way at the moment), having maintained our place and be in a strong position to continue to build and strengthen our place. Many disabled artists have the overheads of accessible spaces to pay, which losing will mean beginning again. That is essential or we are back at the beginning of our campaigning all over again – as if we are not drained of energy, resources and morale enough by our unequal place and our ongoing fight.

6. Independent Disabled Voices:  in particular from the independent sector, who have very different experiences than those in receipt of Elevate and NPO support. We must be heard now and in the rebuilding of the sector afterwards. The opportunity to create something better than before in terms of equality is presented before us – the present emergency plan merely preserves the status quo. ACE must bring us into the big conversations from the start, respecting our equal status – not as an add on, not as a benevolence, and not because we are different but because we are equal. For us to be in a position to do that, we need to continue to be supported through ACPG and DCYP, and to have our access funds met.

7. Consistent Historical Failures: We have been consistently failed as a community in the arts, often because of national policies in the arts, and the very paternalistic and patronising position we are forced into by being othered and underestimated. There is an assumption that we always need ‘extra’ support because we are not as experienced or knowledgeable or talented, that we need ongoing professional development support throughout our careers, based on the negative unconscious bias and internalised ableism described above in barriers. We are being failed again. And in terms of the work we have already undertaken to prepare and plan projects, to make applications, or to be preparing to submit this year, it is morally and ethically wrong to cancel those labours without consultation.

8. Trust: It has been hard to build trust in the arts establishment, given the lack of infrastructural support and resources available to independent disabled artists. In fact, there was a systemic dismantling of such support over a ten-year period, further disproportionately disadvantaging disabled artists to get footholds in the arts and to have advocating voices. It will be very hard for ACE to regain our trust after all the work and resources we put into developing our project ideas, how hard it is to secure partners, and how much remaining visible in the arts and in society. This applies to grants already in the system and those which would have been to come as part of our progression this year.

9. Progressing projects in the current circumstances is impossible – MYTH: One argument put forward has been that it would not be possible to progress the projects in the current crisis – and for many projects from other artists this might be true – however disabled artists have long had an online community. We have had to create opportunities and communications accessible to us. What many non-disabled people and organisations are now discovering about working remotely and online, we have been doing for years and much of our work can actually continue. We can maintain our place and continue to build relationships with partners, who are all still working from home, and conduct much of activity online and from home using various internet platforms. We are experts in this. With flexibility, we can progress new work.

10. Resilience to Preserve Equality: We need ACE to support us to remain resilient, with our heads above water throughout this crisis without the additional pressure of having our work and sustainability wiped out. Your emergency response is the immediate – which many will benefit from, but for independent disabled artists a more strategic response is required for the reasons above.

11. Too Little Too Late: ACE may be thinking that once we are through the crisis, and may take some decisions to redress the imbalance disabled artists experience, even prioritise disabled artists for a particular fund. It will be too late by then, many of us will have dropped away.

12. Competition and Privilege: The current emergency plan for individuals and organisations is already unfairly weighted to non-disabled people who are much better resourced, can act quickly, know the jargon, and do not have the lifetime of baggage of having to case make and compete for every crumb. We have no infrastructural support organisations to turn to who know us, who know access requirements work, to be a collective voice for us. The more privileged will survive this crisis and the emergency support package is disproportionately weighted to support this.

13. Impact Assessment and Damage Limitation: ACE need to speak to us now before irreparable damage is done and equality in the arts is set back decades – and we mean disabled artists from the independent sector who rely on ACPG and DYCP, and not other representatives coming from different experiences. They are not our representatives, and are conflicted to speak for us.

14Equality and Career Lifespan – impact of receiving a ACPG or DYCP grants: The impact on disabled artists goes way beyond the time scale of the project and probably positively impacts their career for a further two to three years, and more, on the partnerships built, the profile raised, the audiences developed, the artistic development of the individual and much more. To remove the option to apply to ACPG and DYCP removes that, and in the case of disabled artists that is disproportionately impactful and can be irreparable as a whole project and that future is lost and invisibility restored.

15. Please press pause now on ACE decisions about individuals and think about the diversity implications of ACE actions. Hold emergency talks with us now. We would like to know what impact assessment you conducted for all with protected characteristics in arriving at your decisions around funding.

16. Being silenced in times of national and existential crisis: We don’t all want to make work about Covid 19 – we want to continue our lives, but some of us may include Covid 19 and the ableist, deeply damaging societal responses. We rely on artists to be present in society especially at times like this to speak truths – disabled truths need to be supported consistently, and especially at times like these, as we are the most likely community to be regarded as expendable. This is terrifying and we need artistic and cultural platforms to communicate this. Please don’t silence that.

17. Significant and Meaningful Equality Measures Need to be Taken Now: The playing field requires significant measures to approach becoming anywhere near level, which will include going beyond access funds to provide disabled artists with support to begin again, to repair broken trust and confidence, and to have plans in place to move forward. This all requires funding support.

This statement is being made public, has a BSL version in production which will be posted soon, and is being sent to senior Arts Council staff to request action now.

We can be contacted at disconsortia@gmail.com

Since publishing the Disconsortia letter DAO has had permission to publish a response from Abid Hussain, Director of Diversity and Darren Henley, CEO of Arts Council England

Dear Vici

Can I start by expressing the Arts Council’s gratitude to you and the wider collective of disabled artists who contributed to the statement published over the weekend. We value the spirit in which the message was shared and just as importantly, the views and perspectives outlining the historic, current and likely future challenges facing disabled and D/deaf artists.

I also personally appreciated the time we had last week to discuss things in greater detail, recognising the challenging and unprecedented circumstances we are facing. It’s been my privilege to have open and honest conversations with the disability and D/deaf arts sector- including colleagues and peers who work independently, in NPOs, and within funded projects.

I know how much courage it takes to speak out at the risk of upsetting potential partners, commissioners and funders. It is really important for policy makers, including myself, to listen and act.

In the current circumstances we felt compelled to act quickly and with urgency. Like many others across the sector this has meant making difficult decisions- including pressing pause on both our Project Grants and Developing Your Creative Practice (DYCP) programmes, in order to  develop an Emergency Response Package that would respond to these unprecedented times. We felt that if we didn’t make this speedy and significant intervention, the sector’s complex ecology would have become more damaged. This interconnected infrastructure supports the practice of individuals and organisations who receive funding through programmes like Project Grants and DYCP.

We have held back around £57m – about half our Project Grants budget for this year – in the hope that we can reinstate the programme at the earliest opportunity.

The guidance for the Emergency Response funds for individuals and for non-NPOs will be published tomorrow. They recognise the importance of many of the concerns and challenges that are articulated in the statement published over the weekend. Both Darren and I hope the guidance will demonstrate our commitment to ensuring both funds prioritise support for independent disabled and D/deaf artists and Disability led organisations, as well as ensuring access support is available for any individual applicant with access requirements.

The emergency funds cannot address all the valid concerns and challenges raised, and we recognise these will need to be responded to and addressed as part of our wider commitment to delivering Let’s Create, our 10 year vision for the arts and cultural sector in England. As we emerge from the current crisis we are committed to supporting the sector to be more inclusive and to ensure disabled and D/deaf artists are an integral part of shaping that future from the outset.

Both Darren and I would welcome a conversation with the artists involved in Disconsortia to help shape the change we’re all collectively committed to.

Best Wishes

Abid and Darren

For further information about the emergency packages being offered by Arts Council England please visit Darren Henley’s blog and for information about Diversity and the Emergency response, read Abid Hussain’s blog.