Cutting Corners

Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of Southbank Centre, stands in front of a projection which reads 'UNLIMITED' next to a photo of Liz Carr. She holds a microphone in her hand, midst addressing a crowd (not shown).
Launch Night of Southbank Centre's Unlimited Festival 2016. Photo by Rachel Cherry for Unlimited.

September 2016 saw Southbank Centre’s huge Unlimited Festival, featuring art, performance, theatre, workshops, and panel discussions such as ‘Cutting corners – thriving or surviving as a disabled artist’, discussing the impact of the government’s austerity cuts on disabled creatives, with panellists including Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, Claire Saddleton, Senior Relationship Manager (Theatre) at Arts Council England, artist Katy Cracknell, and writer and disability rights activist Penny Pepper, one of Unlimited’s essayists.

Jude Kelly, who Chaired the panel, set the context for the debate by focusing on the impact of her own trajectory, from first steps at Artsline in 1979 and as advisor to Shape Arts in 1980 to today, hosting Unlimited for a third time at the Southbank Centre in 2016. “We have seen huge progress being made in certain areas of the deaf and disability movement, but it’s always against a backdrop of cuts,” she explained.

Katy Cracknell shared her career to date and the different blockages, challenges and opportunities she had forged for herself along the way, from volunteering at Islington Arts Factory to working with Candoco and more recently being part of Access All Areas’s The Launch Pad. Listening to Katy, Jude replied. “It takes an amazing amount of endeavour, relentless e-mailing and phoning. Like any artist you won’t take no for an answer, so what’s your fear?”

“I don’t think the government has ever had a good understanding of people with disabilities.” Katy replied. This was quickly backed up by Penny Pepper, who spoke about the previous week’s action by DPAC (Disabled People Against the Cuts) at the launch of Inclusion London’s report on the closure of the Independent Living Fund.

“So on Monday, I was doing street theatre in the road in Whitehall, and realising if you don’t have your fundamentals supported, whatever they may be for your particular situation, how can you fulfil your creative potential, if you can’t get out of bed?” Penny questioned. A regular writer for the national press, she spoke of a recent piece she had penned for The Guardian, agreeing with Katy: “The Government still cannot grasp the very basics of the social model framework; that we are hindered by barriers, attitudes and from that grow inaccessible environments.”

“I was, as you know a punk. I’m getting on a bit now, but old punks never die,” she went on, “Fighting Margaret Thatcher, ironically, it wasn’t that we were just recipients of charity, more ‘keep you at arm’s length, give you a bit of money, just be quiet.’ But now we are cast as villains and wastrels taking money from the state and that feels targeted. Where we now fit in as artists; that is difficult.”

Jude explored this further: “The idea of being adored if you are a Paralympian or an artist, at the same time as being penalised for being disabled in inappropriate ways i.e. not being disabled in the right way or not being sufficiently disabled, not being able to prove you are properly disabled, and all of these areas around benefits!”

Penny referenced her Guardian article in which she examines disability confidence – this is an approach that does not reflect the necessary depth of understanding or financial support: “We still live in a hugely prejudiced society in terms of barriers. About 50% of places that I would like to perform in, at least 50% as a performance poet, have no access and no concept of supporting disabled and deaf artists. It does feel like a fight to cling on to what you have got.”

Claire Saddleton spoke about investment made by Arts Council England and the recent re-investment in Unlimited of £1.8 million for another four years. There’s also been an additional £700,000 invested in Unlimited to deliver Unlimited International to support disabled artists to partner internationally, as well as Elevate funding to support the resilience of small diverse-led organisations: “Unlimited is not the only way we are trying to support deaf and disabled artists. Grants for the Arts is also a big thing for us; it is our open access programme and we invest £210 million in that too.”

“Part of the shift is around diversity and equality and the Creative Case for Diversity. Diversity and Equality is about workforce and getting people through the doors and making sure there is equality in what we do within the sector. The Arts Council is a powerbase funded by the Government. So that in theory gives disabled and deaf artists a direct access to the Government,” added Jude.

“We can negotiate on behalf of disabled artists to demonstrate the impact of the changes,” Claire went on to suggest, “I suppose the challenge is getting that impact to land with somebody like me. We can then land it somewhere higher up, who can land it somewhere higher up without our structure.”

“So it costs more money to operate if you have a disability. It costs more money to operate if you have children. Generally speaking, people would prefer not to know that, because they don’t know how to solve it. I’m not sure if we can move further with getting the Government to understand unless the activism comes from individuals,” questioned Jude. She continued, “If it comes through institutions like Arts Council [England], there is a limit to the emotional impact. So I suppose it is a requirement of someone like Penny to become an activist by default.”

Penny replied to this: “At this point, more artists are aligned to activism than ever before and there can be some overlap which is quite interesting. It is where I would say I’m optimistic because the activism brings more people in, including up and coming artists just starting out. They are linking up with us old gits you know! Just being together and chatting leads to very positive developments.”

“The people who finally cut through are the ones who actually are doing the work and experiencing the life, and they are the ones that in the end, people hear, and go ‘OK, I get it’,” Jude added.

“As a writer, I’m privileged in some way to have a bit of space to do both at the same time, but I still can’t get regular work as a writer. Yet we know every human being will have some connection to a disabled person, whether through personal experience, a family member, partner, sibling or work colleague.  Is it still one in four people who are deaf or disabled?” Penny questioned.

Interesting opinions were then shared from the floor, referencing the need for a national voice for disabled artists, investment in disability leadership and more paid Change Makers, the Arts Council campaign to promote diverse arts leadership.

At the end of the debate, Jude thanked everyone: “I hope people will go away and exchange thoughts with each other, as well. I would like to thank Claire Saddleton, Penny Pepper and Katy Cracknell for being so informative, and everybody in the audience really for being so generous generally. Diplomacy; let’s be kind, let’s do this and that; it is not very good, is it? It is a bit rotten what’s been happening, really rotten, and I think that we need to have kind but angry momentum.”

To which someone from the floor of the debate said, “I’m angry.”

“The fact that Penny is a punk says it all. We need to have punkness colour the debate. Thank you, everybody,” said Jude, once more, to end the discussion.

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