To celebrate or not to celebrate, that is the question

Photo by Rachel Cherry at Southbank's Unlimited Festival
Photo by Rachel Cherry at Southbank's Unlimited Festival

Today is the United Nations’ International Day of Disabled people – what better time to take stock of what Unlimited has been achieved and what barriers remain? This year, ‘inclusion matters’ is the headline from the UN – a timely reminder given the increasingly devastation wrought by changes and cuts to benefits and support for disabled people in the UK.


A healthy arts sector needs diversity, and disabled artists provide exactly that, with their unique perspectives and experiences providing inspiration for their work. Since the launch of Unlimited we have:

  • Supported 18 main awards and 17 research and development awards across a range of art forms including dance, theatre, live art, music, video installation, fine and conceptual art, and literature – work of all sizes and scales, from artists both new and familiar drawn from across England, Scotland and Wales.
  • Had audiences of over 75,000 through 1,318 performances, installations, screenings and workshops.
  • Unlimited Impact has increased programming by disabled artists by 27% in venue
  • Had 95.4 million ‘opportunities to see’ Unlimited in the media from PR activity (print, online, TV and Radio)
  • Unlimited Impact’s programme has supported 21 young people through projects, developing the next generation of artists, developed 10 mentee relationships and enabled 22 venues to improve their programming or practice.

The numbers tell one story but perhaps more important is the range of places and spaces that the work has been to and the independent endorsements of quality that the artists have achieved.


Fitting’s Edmund the Learned Pig and Tourettehero’s Backstage in Biscuitland gained places in the British Council’s Edinburgh Showcase, Birds of Paradise’s Wendy Hoose was in the Made in Scotland selection and one of our most recent visual arts commissions – Cameron Morgan’s TV Classics Part One, has just been announced as being part of the prestigious Glasgow International Showcase.

As we reported last week, in 2014 Unlimited invested a small amount in Backstage in Biscuit Land to give artist Jess Thom the space and support to think about making her very first show. Since then she has stormed the Edinburgh Fringe getting four and five star reviews kick starting a career that’s already seen her play Brighton Festival, the Barbican, DadaFest and last month she re-versioned the work for BBC4, as one of only four companies selected by Battersea Arts Centre to create work for the unique Live from Television Centre broadcast.


A recent external report commissioned by Shape and Artsadmin, who currently run the programme asked ‘Is Unlimited changing the way in which disability and creativity are viewed within the cultural sector, and if so, how can it do it better?’. The results were positive, with 135 artists and arts professionals giving their opinions. One person commented:

‘There’s still a long way to go, but the shift which has particularly come from Unlimited is just phenomenal.’

Unlimited’s role as a connector and broker for artists were also praised:

‘Unlimited has a greater potential to have influence because they’re talking to everybody. I don’t know any other development agency that’s doing that.’

The commissioning function of the programme is currently seen to be delivering the most important outcomes, raising the level of ambition amongst artists at all levels. Suggestions for improvements ranged from creating an alumni of previously funded artists ensuring support is on-going, increasing the focus on under-represented areas (be they geographic, artform based or diversity related) and considering additional fundraising to increase capacity in order to achieve specific aims, such as establishing international co-commissioning opportunities for disabled artists.

The report indicated that whilst Unlimited is increasingly recognised, more work needs to be done to broaden awareness more widely through the sector:

‘I think the conversation has moved forward but not as much as it could. We still need to bring in the people we need to convert, and the newly converted people have to bring people who aren’t converted yet.’


In September 2016, Unlimited commissions will be present at not one, but two Unlimited Festivals – Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival in London and Tramway’s Unlimited festival in Glasgow

Unlimited Impact’s programme will continue to support disabled young people and expand our network of allies and supporters. Unlimited currently has around 70 Allies, and there are opportunities to broaden and strengthen this community. We want to work with as many venues, promoters, producers and touring companies as possible, to help them to become more inclusive and accessible.

We’re looking to expand internationally, to give our supported artists the opportunities to reach new international audiences, and also change attitudes on an international level.


The above sounds a bit rosy. It’s not. Yes, disabled artists are breaking through but not in the numbers that are needed, not within leadership roles, not within programmes for rural area and small towns as well as bigger cities, not as headline acts rather than ones squeezed in on the fringe, not with the budgets, resources and support that many non-disabled artists command.

The arts sector hasn’t been cut within the spending review – and a huge hurrah for that. However disabled people and those needing social care have already been hit up to 19 times harder by cuts than others. The playing field is still not even and it’s getting worse not better.

We need more programmers booking programming work by disabled artists, we need more venues making access a priority, we need more arts funders prepared to take risks and fund innovative work. We also need more disabled people working at all levels within the industry.

Gill Lloyd, Artsadmin explains:

“There’s a gap in the management and production side of work for disabled people… When we advertised for an Unlimited trainee, we had 15 to 20 applications, but for an Artsadmin trainee, which is non-specific, we had a couple of hundred applicants.”

(The current Unlimited traineeship application deadline is 7 December 2015.)

So will we be celebrating? Today we’ll be toasting our hard working team and the amazing artists we support for the contribution that they are making, but we’ll be writing ‘must do better’ on the bottom of our report card along with every arts programme and organisation throughout the UK. Until disabled people reach true place of equality within our cultural sector, we won’t stop to truly celebrate.


Hot Topics