The Creative Minds project asks how the work of artists with a learning disability can best join the mainstream. Mark Richardson explains.

Artist Thompson Hall at work
Artist Thompson Hall at work
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Action Space London Events

“My disability doesn’t stop me from performing – I have Down’s syndrome and I see that as a positive thing,” says Bethan Kendrick of Corali Dance Company and a committee member of Creative Minds.

Bold and in your face? Yes, just like many of the artists and performers with learning disabilities that the UK boasts. Yet Bethan’s work, and the work of hundreds of others like her, is largely hidden within the UK’s vibrant cultural scene. Bethan and her colleagues think that this is because she has learning disabilities. Is her exclusion down to prejudice, ignorance, or the ‘nanny state’ in which we live? This is one of the questions that Creative Minds, a new project and series of conversations, seeks to discuss. It aims to challenge perceptions of learning disability-led arts and performance and to widen the net of audiences who see this work, valuing it for what it is – work that can be of a high quality.

They want a conversation about quality that is led by the voice of learning disabled people and informed by artists, performers, arts organisations...

Historically, disability arts has seen a surge of support and a wider acceptance within the arts and cultural sector. This has been a great step forward in terms of equality and promoting the diversity of the artistic community, but learning disabled art has yet to enjoy that same equality.

With this in mind, Creative Minds is led by learning disabled artists and performers, from inception right through to delivery. The committee of learning disabled creatives who are in charge say it is about “seeing, talking and questioning”. They are particularly keen to start a conversation about how they and others decide if art and performance by people with learning disabilities is good. They want a conversation about quality that is led by the voice of learning disabled people and informed by artists, performers, arts organisations, art critics, venue programmers, academics and anyone else who is interested in learning disability-led arts. They want as many other people to join in with their conversation as possible.

“I want to be taken seriously and treated like an artist,” says Sarah Watson, Carousel and Creative Minds committee member. Indeed, the perception among the general population, and the wider arts world, appears to be that artists and performers with learning disabilities are not taken seriously. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a review of a theatre, dance or exhibition by learning disabled artists and performers in the national press? We on the steering committee have been scouring the archives to find such a review. Some do exist, mainly in specialist press such as Community Living, but they tend to be a narrative outlining what took place and are descriptive rather than offering a critique. Among the steering committee, there is a feeling that reviewers do not want to hurt their feelings. They say this is patronising.

For this reason, the Creative Minds committee wants to create a place where people can go to find out about learning disability arts and its creative ambition. The Creative Minds project is built around a website, offering a forum where people can talk about their definitions of quality in learning disability-led work. They can do this by posting words, pictures or links to films. It is important that this remains an accessible conversation with learning disabled artists and performers fully involved. For example, a venue programmer might look here before developing an audience development plan for a learning disability dance company they have booked. A critic might look here in preparation for writing a review. A funder might look here to inform their funding decisions for learning disability led creative work. An academic might look here to inform their teaching or research.

The website will be launched at a series of conferences around England (see below). Delegates will be able to see short extracts of creative work, listen to the artists who made it, talk about quality in their work and the audiences they are aiming at. Then they will have a chance to join in the discussion and work together to find a way of ensuring the conference legacy moves forwards. The conference will be delivered by learning disabled artists and performers, with input from art critics from the national press and academics from the University of Hertfordshire, one of our conference partners.

Creative Minds brings together 18 arts organisations from across London, the south east, the west and the east of England. These organisations are passionate about sharing the work of the learning disabled artists and performers they support as widely as possible. They are determined to increase the profile and reach of this work, and by coming together the organisations feel that they can have a larger impact than by standing alone. Each organisation works differently, but the outcome is the same: quality arts and performances.

As part of Creative Minds, the committee is putting together a guide (to be ready next September) that will explain, in an accessible way, how artists and performers with learning disabilities can be supported to put on their own events. We will encourage many people and organisations to use the guide to develop their own events that link into the Creative Minds website. The steering committee want as many other learning disability-led arts and performance companies to join the Creative Minds community as possible. If your organisation wants to work with us to keep this conversation alive, please let us know.

Mark Richardson is Artistic Director of Carousel.
www.carousel.org.uk
www.creativemindsproject.org.uk

The launch event for the website will take place at Brighton Dome on Monday 10 March.

In October next year there will be a Creative Minds West Conference at At-Bristol, and during 2015 there will be a Creative Minds East Conference.

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