Unlimited: Cutting corners – thriving or surviving as a disabled artist


Trish Wheatley reports back on a discussion on the impact of austerity cuts on the creative community as part of the programme of talks at Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre on 10 September. Chaired by Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, Jude Kelly. 

Photo of disabled performer Penny Pepper reading from her memoir propped on a music stand

Penny Pepper on stage reading from her memoir First In The World Somewhere

This discussion was opened by setting the context of how, at a time when there is significant investment from funding bodies, particularly Arts Council England, to support talent development, there is an ongoing series of cuts to funding led with ‘louder and more casual rhetoric’, being pushed by the government and the media.

Dance practitioner, Katie Cracknell has managed to join up the dots and take advantage of the opportunities that are available with organisations such as Candoco Dance Company and Access All Areas.

Penny Pepper, currently involved in a week of action with DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts), is campaigning for disabled people’s rights to services, highlighting the recent ILF (Independent Living Fund) impact report from Inclusion London making the point that “if you don’t have your fundamental needs met, then how can you fulfil your creative potential?”.

Penny did convey some optimism around the fact people are joining and fighting for rights and that there has been more press coverage of the campaign. However, she also said that it is still abundantly clear that MPs don’t represent the country in terms of disability. One of the biggest barriers preventing Penny from being an artist is that at least 50% of venues that she wants to perform in have no access for disabled performers.

Claire Saddleton of Arts Council England, whose portfolio includes the Unlimited programme, talked about there being spheres of influence: artists, large venues and Government. She urged people to use the Arts Council as a line of engagement with government about issues, as Jenny Sealey has done with a Graeae campaign to stop changes to Access to Work.

Jude Kelly made an interesting observation that there is a tradition from people in authority to underestimate the power of disabled peoples’ stories to provoke interest. More people in positions of power need to see the Unlimited commissions.

The session could have benefited from being longer as it was felt that the questions from the floor had a real potency and weren’t fully explored. The subjects covered included how we support disabled leadership in the ‘real corridors of power’? How can we support educators? How do we develop a strong national voice given the reduction in regional arts infrastructure supporting disabled artists?
In summing up, Jude Kelly encouraged people to go on and continue the conversations, saying we need “kind but angry momentum” and that “punk-ness needs to be cultivated”.

It was an invigorating and passionate discussion that provoked people to work to improve the current situation where possible. On that note, Shape Arts are currently have an artists survey on their website and DAO is working in partnership with the organisation to use this feedback to identify artists needs to design and fundraise future programmes that support disabled artists’ development. Please take part here.