As someone involved in the running and development of three cultural organisations Arts Council's No Boundaries conference was a must-see event. I for one was very grateful that the live-stream was an available option given an extremely busy programme of project planning and fundraising that has taken up the first two months of 2014.
Dipping in and out of the stream over the two days, and then having the opportunity to return to the talks I missed the first time round or re-visit some of the more interesting ones, opened up a whole new way to experience and gain valuable insights from an event like this. No Boundaries had sparks of brilliance, moments of inspiration and an abundance of affirmation. By affirmation I mean that hearing from other people and their experiences helped to reassure me that we are on the right track with our approach to building Dao into a valuable cultural organisation.
No Boundaries wouldn’t have been out of place billed as a Creative Case for Diversity event, particularly with the access vastly improved since other similar Arts Council sponsored events (Jo Verrent talks about the access in more detail in her Huffington Post blog), and featuring speakers such as Nii Sackey and Kwame Kwei-Armah on the very subject of diversity. From Nii it was a kind of call to arms that said yes we’ve progressed, but we still have a long way to go. He said that “naturally we gravitate to what we know” and suggested that we “start to get comfortable with the uncomfortable”.
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s talk resonated with stories about disabled artists, describing how being an outsider is “both brilliant and horrible”. The narrative emerging over the past few years within disability arts has been underlined by an attempt to show that the unique perspectives of creative disabled people have a wider relevance within our society. Kwame concluded by saying
“The challenge of the 21st century artist is how to be culturally specific and yet universal, how to not allow the history of our artforms to exclude, but to include. How to use our tools and our talents as advocators for a better world, and not just as 'entertainers'?"
This helped to re-affirm for me that the task of the disabled artist is no different from any other artist, provided the barriers to participation for our community of creative people are removed, and that our disability arts community has a valuable and vital role to play in this wider debate. That is really is the Creative Case in a nutshell.
17-year-old Sophie Setter Jerrome brilliantly challenged the live and online delegation, speaking from her unique position of being the youngest person invited to contribute to this TED-style live-streamed multi-location congregation of arts professionals. She criticised indiscriminate marketing as 'unhelpful' and told us that “cultural organisations should be at the forefront of inspiring movements”.
Vikki Heywood, Chairman of the RSA, posited a brilliant idea, almost a ‘creative case for creativity’ itself, that artists need to be part of boards outside of the cultural sector:
“Artists need to be on the boards of businesses… to make sure our voice is in the room when decisions are being made and therefore our value is recognised. So we can really increase the understanding of how artistic contribution can and does enrich society and enhance our cultural identity and play a valuable, central role.”
This innovative Bristol-York live-linked event again produced another Creative Case example in Russell Willis Taylor, President and CEO of National Arts Strategies, to argue the case for resilience and its reliance on the diversity of ideas.
No Boundaries may have been really fresh for some people. It was certainly interesting and inspiring to hear other people’s experiences and thought provoking to apply their ideas to the context in which I work. From me though, it felt like those ideas resonated because I was already aware of them through our work on the Creative Case for Diversity.
I emerged from the conference still sitting on my sofa being left with two resounding words which seemed to have become underlying themes throughout the conference: community and authenticity. Russell Willis Taylor summed it up beautifully by encouraging us to “build communities, not audiences”. That is what I take away from No Boundaries and that is what we at Dao continuously strive to achieve.
All the No Boundaries talk are available to watch online at www.nb2014.org
I am looking forward to the 'Creative Minds' conference coming up on 10th March in Brighton. Altogether 26 learning disability arts organisations have been working to create a series of conferences / events in various regions across the country.
Carousel have taken the lead on the Brighton event. There will be performances, art and talking from: Action Space London, Chris Pavia, choreographer with Stop Gap Dance Company, Corali Dance Company, Face Front Theatre Company, Oska Bright Film Festival and Rocket Artists.
Within these groups there are learning disabled artists whose work I'd really rate; individuals who've worked hard at developing their skills and honing their craft. Over the years I've seen the quality of performance and artwork by learning disabled artists improve, partly I think because the attitude of people facilitating the training has improved.
My lack-lustre introduction to the sector happened in the mid-1980s. I'd been on benefits for many years and had to go to a workshop run by Chicken Shed Theatre company as part of a government-run 'back to work' scheme. I was appalled by the patronising way the 'workers' talked to the people they were supposed to be working with. I walked out on the workshop, thinking 'these people might have learning disabilities, but they're not stupid.' It made me angry.
I've not been to see the work of Chicken Shed in recent decades. But back then the company clearly had an ethos where they thought the way of working with people was to tell them what to do. What counts for me, in terms of quality, is that the creative expression comes from artists themselves. I know from my own artistic endeavours that it takes confidence to think of yourself as an artist. And you can only get confidence through trying different things, making mistakes and taking on board advice about where you're not hitting the mark.
Looking through comments on the Creative Minds Forum, I can see how my thoughts on what makes for good Art are echoed by others who also believe that there is a pool of unique experience of the world to be tapped through encouraging and facilitating learning disabled people to become artists.
For example Oska Bright Film Festival has been hugely successful because the decision-making is controlled by people with learning disabilities. As an audience we are offered a truly original glimpse into a way of seeing that is hidden from the mainstream world.
There are two big questions as I see it. Firstly, how do you connect that notion of an 'aesthetic' or something that is original, to the notion of 'quality'? And secondly how do you go about telling artists with learning disabilities if you have an opinion on where the work falls down? You want to be encouraging, but equally you don't want to patronise people by telling them their work is great when you don't think that is the case.
There are lots of comments in the talking area of the Creative Minds website and I know Carousel are hoping more people will take part in the discussion, so if you have an opinion add your pennies worth at www.creativemindsproject.org.uk/category/talking-area/