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A commissioning programme in support of disabled artists was inundated with applications. Jo Verrent says the sector must increase its commitment to this under-served community.

an outdoor theatre performance
Nickie Miles-Wildin and Mind the Gap — ZARA.

Chris Payne

Unlimited, the arts commissioning programme for new works by disabled artists, recently awarded over £715,000 to 34 artists out of a total of 468 who applied - a 70% increase on previous rounds. We would have needed £9 million to fund all the applications. 

It was no surprise to receive so many. The impact of the pandemic had not only hit all artists and other freelancers hard, but with over one third of those dying from COVID-19 in the UK being disabled people, it has hit disabled people even harder. Many found themselves labelled ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and unable to take part in even partially restaged projects. The pressure on them has been immense.
Despite the welcome vaccines, lower overall rates of infection and a widespread adoption of the disabled-led seven principles for an inclusive recovery, disabled people may still be banned from that recovery for some time to come.

Unlimited’s commissions and awards

It’s in this context that the commissions were announced and why it’s so important that these works are supported by the whole arts sector, not just by Unlimited. The work is appealing, with diversity at all levels, for indoors and outdoors, for rural and urban settings, from publications, theatre, installations, to research-based projects and more. Artists at all levels of their careers are funded, with some projects aimed at children, some at families and some most definitely adult only.
Clear themes emerge, such as these artists responding to the climate emergency: 

Rachael Young’s Island Bodies which uses VR, AR and 360-degree film, pushing audiences to explore the intersections of social and environmental justice.

Mind the Gap and Nickie Miles-Wildin’s Leave the Light on For Me, outdoor theatre devised and performed by learning-disabled performers using soundscape, physical performance, and evocative imagery that highlight the devastating impact of excluding people from climate change conversations.
And Cheryl Beer’s CÂN Y COED, a sound sculpture re-uniting the declining temperate rainforests of Wales for the first time in 10,000 years, and re-purposing the bio-medical and electronic technologies that fuel her hearing aids.
This year we purposely sought to work with the wider sector. Eleven arts organisations partnered with us, offering expertise and funding to ensure selected artists got maximum support for the most profound impact. 
Wellcome Collection supports two awards: Christopher Samuel’s The Archive of the Unseen, an innovative Microform reader installation ensuring the lived experience of being a disabled, black child from a working-class household no longer goes unseen; and Dolly Sen’s Birdsong from Inobservable Worlds, which will add missing voices to the current archives of madness through a project utilising literature, performance and film.

What more do disabled artists need?

More disabled artists are now gaining recognition and opportunities. It's known and widely quoted that disabled people make up between 15 and 22% of the population, so why there is not this level of representation in all awards given by all strands, streams, funds and funders?
Unlimited is only a single piece of the jigsaw, not the whole picture. Massive gaps remain such as support for disabled artists not yet able to demonstrate a track record due to barriers in the sector; those facing multiple intersectional barriers; those wanting to develop long-term research projects rather than single commissions; and young people – the artists of the future – who need encouragement and support now, before they leave the arts due to lack of investment. 
Our monitoring shows that over 50% of artists applying to us are in a perilous financial position and 25% have experienced homelessness. The sector needs to work together to support disabled artists, more coherently and with more resources. 

There are so many ways arts organisations could help disabled artists: 

  • by engaging with the work and the artists – these commissions are a great introduction to a world of talented, visionary artists working across all artforms;
  • by sharing and showcasing their work;
  • by developing projects giving them creative control;
  • by doing the work – getting training, going to debates and discussions, getting advice and support (and paying for it). 

Unlimited runs an allies scheme with about 400 organisations signed up to receive a monthly newsletter about the work and how to engage. This includes some 150 NPOs which sounds impressive until you remember that there are 828 of them.  

Now is the time to act

The Disability Discrimination Act is over 25 years old and disabled artists expect equality. Sadly, practice in the arts sector is still not meeting their needs. With inclusion and relevance highlighted in ACE’s Let’s Create strategy and increasing pressure from other funders, it’s time for organisations to stop talking and start taking action. 
It’s time for Unlimited to act too. We are currently transitioning into an independent organisation, refining what we do, how we do it and who we do it with. We want to work with more partners in more strategic ways to have more of an impact on the sector. 
We’ve loved the ‘slow build’ we’ve been able to achieve with Coventry 2021 jointly running Connects events, funding micro grants, then emerging artist awards as well as some larger strategic commissions with Al Davison and Raquel Meseguer Zafe, which will bear fruit in late 2021 and into 2022. We are looking now for our next set of partners – organisations ready to go on the journey with us, with resources to invest and a desire for change. How much change can we make in 5 years?

Jo Verrent is the Senior Producer for Unlimited. 

Unlimited is co-delivered by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, with support from Arts Council England, Arts Council Wales, Creative Scotland and the British Council, and has awarded more than £4.7 million to over 400 ambitious disabled artists and companies since 2013. 

Link to Author(s): 
Jo smiles at the camera. She is a woman with multi coloured hair, wearing spectacles and a blue top.