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> > > Interview: Chris Hammond talks about Full Circle Arts

31 October 2007

Leadership in Disability Arts

Joe Bidder interviews the pioneering Chris Hammond, director of Full Circle Arts in Manchester

Photo of Chris Hammond

Photograph of Chris Hammond by Tom Hammond

Disability Arts agencies, promoting the artistic talents of disabled people, have been a principal focal point in the human rights struggles for the emancipation of disabled people. Chris Hammond has an international reputation for her pioneering achievements at Full Circle Arts, the Manchester based disability arts agency where she is Artistic Director. She has modernised it, with an emphasis on quality and integrity, and influenced practice nationwide.

Born in 1958 in the Lancashire village of Brierfield, into a working class family rooted in the region's coal mines and cotton mills, there was little in her background to predict a career in the arts. At the local secondary modern school she passed eight GCEs, and then transferred to Nelson Colne College of Further Education. “By accident I enrolled on the arts foundation course which changed my life,” she says.

After A levels Hammond received a BA in Fine Art at Kent University, returned to Manchester in 1979, but was unable to find work during the recession. Married in 1980, with two sons by 1985, she became a part-time art teacher at Bury College, progressed to full time by 1989, and continued to paint in her studio.

She studied marketing, was appointed Marketing Director of Centra, the examinations board, but was sacked in 1991 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (“There was no DDA legislation”, she remarks tersely), then started her own design business.

A disability arts cabaret in Morecombe was a liberating moment “It all came together for me” she recalls. “Disability politics, disability arts and the social model. It felt right.”

In 1993 she joined Full Circle Arts (FCA), then chaired by Tony Heaton, was appointed Artistic Director in 1996, and set about transforming its mission, concentrating on youth work, mentoring, a brilliant website, creating partnerships to provide training and employment opportunities for disabled artists.

“Society changes rapidly. We had to understand what disabled people wanted.” FCA consulted disabled artists and mainstream organisations: the results were significant. “87% of artists consulted felt trapped by the label disabled artist".

FCA is the only arts organisation in Britain to achieve Approved Provider Status from the National Mentoring and Befriending Network. It has become the leader in mentoring; the model of best practice; the one imitated by others.

Hammond's reputation has been recognised by Arts Council England, the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit and the Japanese Government. In 2007 FCA received £60,000 to establish DALI (Disability Arts Leadership Intelligence), a network of five distinguished disabled artists: Liz Crow, Chris Hammond, Moya Harris, Sarah Scott, Michelle Taylor. This network, funded by the Cultural Leadership Programme - backed by Gordon Brown - will identify, train, nurture and develop future disabled leaders in Britain.

“The arts have changed”, says Hammond. “You see more women at the top and people from diverse cultures, but not disabled people!”, adding passionately, “I would like to see disabled people as future leaders in the arts … and not just in disability arts … as leaders in the mainstream."

See Chris Hammond's gallery...

Chris Hammond: profile

Leadership in Disability Arts

Chris Hammond is a leader in Disability Arts, with an international reputation for her pioneering achievements at Full Circle Arts, the Manchester based disability arts agency where she is Artistic Director.

Born in 1958 in the Lancashire village of Brierfield, on the edge of the Pennines, in a working class family rooted in the region's coal mines and cotton mills, there is little in Hammond's background to predict an arts career. After failing the 11-plus, she went to a secondary modern school which, shortly thereafter, became a comprehensive. There she gained eight GCEs before transferring to the Nelson Colne College of Further Education.

“It was known locally as The College of Knowledge”, she quips dryly, “And by accident I enrolled on the arts foundation course which changed my life.” A moment of serendipity.

Aged eighteen, armed with A levels in art, Hammond enrolled on a fine art degree at the University of Kent. “I was passionate about painting and needed to get away from Lancashire … Canterbury was about as far as I could go in England!”

In 1979, with a BA in Fine Art, Hammond returned to Manchester. Her move coincided with the beginning of a prolonged economic recession and graduates throughout the country were drawing the dole. “I tried the Post Office but was rejected for being too arty and left wing”, she recalls.

Hammond married in 1980, had two sons by 1985, and during the mid-80s was a part-time teacher of painting and life drawing at Bury College of Further Education. By 1989 she was able to teach full-time at Bury and continued to paint in her studio at home. Hammond studied for a Marketing Diploma at Bolton Institute of Higher Education, and in 1989 she was appointed Marketing Director for Centra, the examinations board, a move she regrets since it took her away from the arts and teaching.

Aged 32, Chris, by then a mental health system survivor, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and continued a long-term, frequently ambivalent, relationship with the medical system. Her condition began to deteriorate and without the protection of today's Disability Discrimination Act she was sacked by Centra in 1991. “I was pensioned off with just enough to buy a new washing machine”, she remembers, unsentimentally.

Chris quickly grasped the concept of the social model of disability but found some family members and health workers unable to accommodate anything but the medical model. There was the typical thoughtless discrimination.

One day her social worker said “Well done. You're on the list of handicapped!”

“Good, am I in the 2.40 at Haydock?”, she replied tartly.

With two young boys and a progressive mobility impairment, job hunting proved difficult so Hammond started a business - Hammond MPD - specialising in marketing, design and graphics. Chris was opened up to disability politics via the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, one of England's leading disability rights organisations. A trip to Morecombe in 1993 to see a disability cabaret starring Johnny Crescendo and Wanda Barbara was a liberating moment. “It all came together for me”, she recalls, “Disability politics, disability arts and the social model. It felt right.”

Not content with working alone, and by now a wheelchair user, Chris needed a job working within a team and in 1993 she applied for a post advertised in The Guardian. In February 1994 she was appointed Artistic Coordinator at NW Shape, then chaired by Tony Heaton who was engaged in transforming NW Shape into Full Circle Arts, an organisation controlled by disabled people committed to disability arts.

Manchester was a vibrant centre for disability arts: its leadings artists were singer/composer Ian Stanton, the poet Sue Napolitano, and sculptor Tony Heaton; New Breed Theatre was at the Green Room and Kwabena Gyedu programmed an exciting disability arts festival for the City of Drama. It was a turning point for Chris Hammond.

In 1996 Chris was appointed Artistic Director of Full Circle Arts (FCA) and set about completing the organisation's change of direction, a process taking three years to complete. With a pragmatic, perceptive insight into future needs she started with the Board of Trustees and its mission. Out went all non-disabled trustees and gone too was the mission to support elders. The Board was modernised with fixed term agreements for trustees, and FCA's mission was re-orientated towards disability arts and disabled artists themselves.

Under her leadership, FCA knew that the disability arts constituency was ageing; that a new strategy was needed for its future; one based on youth work, mentoring, training, professional development planning, advanced information technology and website management, plus a host of partnership structures with key organisations. Hammond made the bold decision to focus not on outright growth but on quality and integrity.

“Society was changing rapidly” says Hammond. “We had to relate to the need for capacity building; to understand what disabled people want now; to issues of quality and inclusion.”

Full Circle Arts has been at the forefront of the changes taking place in disability arts. Aspiring disabled artists know that disability arts events alone cannot provide the exposure and employment opportunities they need to establish a meaningful lifelong career in the arts. FCA has conducted extensive consultation sessions with disabled artists and with mainstream arts organisations.

“Disabled artists want support and advocacy for them to be included in mainstream galleries, theatres, media and arts centres”, says Hammond, adding, “They require professional training, business skills, mentoring and, most of all, the confidence to make decisions about what informs their practice and how they market themselves and their work to audiences - the right to make their own choices.”

Consultation has further revealed how artists feel about labels. “87% of artists consulted feel trapped by the label disabled artist” reports Hammond, “And they feel that both mainstream arts and disability worlds have preconceived ideas about how this label informs their work and their audiences.”

These research driven conclusions have motivated a major shift in the direction of FCA's programmes. New partnership schemes have been developed to provide disabled artists with what they need and not shackle them to philosophies wedded to outmoded ideological objectives. A focus on young disabled people, wide outreach, careful selection of the most promising before enrolling them on its Source mentoring programme is a crucial FCA operation.

“Disability Arts agencies such as Full Circle Arts”, states Hammond emphatically, must not tell artists where they have to sit in terms of labels. Many have been pushed too far and too fast in the past, and this has not been productive”, adding, “We have to build core capacities first, such as confidence, training, skills, mentoring and support systems.”

Without doubt, FCA is the national centre of excellence for mentoring. It has achieved unique recognition to become APS - Approved Provider Status - by the national Mentoring and Befriending Network. Presently FCA is the only arts organisation in Britain to achieve this status. This position has been reached through inspired leadership, the application of management and financial resources, painstaking attention to detail and consistent delivery.

Developed over ten years, FCA created the first professional mentoring scheme ever undertaken in the disability arts sector. A pilot programme began in 1997, a partnership with Manchester Further Education College. It has become the leader; the model of best practice; the one imitated by others.

“Mentoring should not be seen in isolation”, says Hammond. “I firmly believe that high quality, one to one formal PDP - professional development planning - sessions, which we organise, play a key role in the individual's development. Through the partnerships we have forged, we give people opportunities to work and train in the mainstream.”

Hammond and FCA have much to be proud of since they get many requests for FCA mentees speaks for itself: 4 have had successful one-man exhibitions in mainstream galleries, 3 have had lead actor roles, 2 in TV dramas, one directs a disability arts organisation, 7 have degrees, 2 manage voluntary arts groups, and more. Mentee comments are inspiring:

Nicola Cockburn says “Mentoring has helped my confidence and encouraged me to consider going back to study for my Master's. This year I gained entry onto an MA in Broadcast Journalism.”

FCA is currently mentoring artists in London and Birmingham, a testament to its reputation and skill - a fact which merits recognition by Arts Council England as it deliberates on funding allocations.

Another example of Hammond's insistence on quality is the Full Circle Arts website. Managed by Jade Anson, it is a joy to use. Easy to navigate, updated daily, with local, regional and national presentations. There is a site wittily labelled Creative Procrastination, where you can while away some time, but beware - pure pleasure can be seductively addictive! Its events pages are excellent, as its jobs section. In August 2007 this website had a record breaking 16,000 hits. There is also Source, the FCA fortnightly newsletter which you can get by subscribing.

Her devotion to Full Circle Arts and disabled people in the arts has meant less emphasis on her own artistic career. A selection of Chris' art is shown in the gallery accompanying this profile. She is a gifted graphic artist and designer as evidenced by her work for Full Circle - look at its leaflets and website for examples. Her inspirations are eclectic, ranging from the late Ian Stanton, to Rothko's work at Tate Modern, to which Hammond has immediate physical and emotional responses. She also owes much to Ghandi and Martin Luther King - “I guess it's the power and truth of the message”, she acknowledges.

Hammond's achievements have not gone unnoticed. She was appointed a member of North West Arts Board in the period 1997-2003 where she had a role in advising and supervising all funded arts activities in the region. In 2001 she was appointed to the Arts & Disability Advisory Panel of Arts Council England's (ACE) National Office, and since 2003 she has been a key member of the ACE steering group writing the National Disability Strategy for England.

“Disability Equality policies and practice are still not uniform around England,” she states “Arts Council must ensure its excellent policies are put into practice for all regions.”

National work and reputation have resulted in Hammond working with the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, the Department for Culture Media and Sport, and the Cultural Leadership Partnership.

In 2006 FCA helped to establish DALI (Disability Arts Leadership Intelligence), a network of five distinguished disabled artists and consultants: Liz Crow, Chris Hammond, Moya Harris, Sarah Scott, Michelle Taylor, each with significant long term leadership expertise in the disability arts sector. A £60,000 grant was awarded by the Cultural Leadership Programme, a joint project between Arts Council England, Creative & Cultural Skills and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council - a programme sponsored by the Prime Minister.

“If you look at the arts now,” says Hammond. “It has changed: you see more women at the top and people from diverse cultural backgrounds, but you don't see disabled people at the top!” and adds passionately, “I would like to see disabled people as future leaders in the arts … and not just in disability arts … as leaders in the mainstream.”

The DALI network of five disabled women leaders is working hard, on a steep learning curve. “By end 2008 we shall all be able to cascade our work down into our own regions; to identify, train, nurture and develop future disabled leaders in the arts”, Hammond states. “These must be leaders with confidence and vision; capable of employing professional managers with skills in finance, corporate planning and human resources.”

The passion burns bright in Chris Hammond. One knows she means to succeed. What she has done for Full Circle Arts in the past she means to do in the future. She is a true leader, one who intends to seek out and develop future disabled leaders in the arts.

See Chris Hammond's gallery...

Comments

Bol

/
14 November 2007

I agree absolutely with not imposing the disability tag on disabled artists - but isn't there a danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Shouldn't we fight for a place for Art that reflects disability? Without it, aren't we in danger of easily finding ourselves moving backwards?

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