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Emma Bennison: It’s the Little Things That Get You Dreaming Big / 15 February 2016

Emma Bennison being interviewed by Dr Emily Mark-FitzGerald about being an ‘Artist, Advocate or Both?’ during Creative Connections: Arts and Disability Conversation and Showcase. January 2016, Galway, Ireland. Photo © Reg Gordon

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On 27 and 28 January I was delighted to be invited by Arts and Disability Ireland to speak and perform at their Creative Connections: Arts and Disability Conversation and Showcase event. It had to be one of the most welcoming, accessible, thought-provoking and just plain fun events I’ve ever been to.

Sure, I was already predisposed to getting the most out of it. But the fact that it opened with Jess Thom, (whose show ‘Backstage in Biscuit Land’) was one of the highlights of my first visit to the UK,  telling us to laugh at her tourettes tics, like “biscuit” “hedgehog” “fuck” and on one occasion, “spatula”, gave us permission to engage in serious conversation but with a tinge of humour which somehow made the debate less inflammatory, though no less significant throughout. 

Jess modelled her own advice, “nurture unpredictable outcomes” and reminded us that “fear creates barriers, open communication fights fear”. So after those pearls of wisdom, I think we were ready for anything and from my perspective at least, we were not disappointed. 

We heard from artists discussing their work and their creative pathways; all were unique and it was refreshing to have the focus on the process and the work, rather than the impact of impairment which too often overshadows arts and disability conversation. Rachel Gadsden reminded artists to spend as much time finding audiences for the work as making it. 

I spoke about my experiences as the first CEO with disability to lead Arts Access Australia and how I balance that with my own arts practice and broader advocacy work. You’ll be pleased to know that I took Jess’s advice to heart, swore at least once and embraced unpredictable outcomes by disclosing my mental health issues publicly for the first time to over 200 people.

Seriously, I’m very glad I did, given the number of people who expressed their appreciation of my willingness to talk openly about burn-out and anxiety afterwards. 

As you would expect, there was also a lot of talk about access during the conference. Betty Siegel, Director of Accessibility  at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, spoke about implementing accessibility there and a panel of experts shared experiences of access in museums and at festivals. 

It is clear that there is a long way to go in terms of venue accessibility, training and access planning in Ireland. There was also some debate as to whether artists with disability have a responsibility to walk the talk by ensuring that their own work is accessible. The event itself had access pretty well covered. It was audio described, captioned and interpreted. 

One of the highlights was a panel discussion about Ignite, a program which resulted in three collaborative commissions between internationally recognised artists with disability and local communities and venues in Ireland. They were encouraged to “dream big” and develop new and ambitious work. The largest ever investment by Arts Council Ireland and local authorities, the panel was a unique opportunity to hear from both the artists and the funders about the process and outcomes, particularly after having seen some of the work at a showcase at the Black Box in Galway the previous evening. 

My observation is that Ireland and Australia can learn much from one another when it comes to arts and disability. Both countries appear to be at similar points, though I suspect that Ireland’s geographical proximity to the UK makes the kind of international commissioning collaborations which emerged from Ignite more possible. 

Having said that, the work which the British Council is doing to support international arts and disability collaboration and exchange and the recent announcement of the Unlimited international commissioning program will create exciting opportunities for artists with disability to “dream big” in the future I have no doubt. 

Emma Bennison is Chief Executive Officer of Arts Access Australia


Dr Michael Cole

21 February 2016

A really inspiring article. Jess Thom sounds empowering; I wish we had someone like her here in Australia. We do our best at Artescape at Rouse Hill in Sydney.