Unlimited one year in…

Jo Verrent, Unlimited’s Senior Producer, reflects on the first year of Shape and Artsadmin’s stewardship of the Unlimited programme…

Last week I got a heap of congratulations coming in through the online networking tool LinkedIn. It had been a year since I added ‘Senior Producer at Unlimited’ to my biography – a year since we’d set up Unlimited in its current form.

Surely they had got it wrong? How had we got funding, set up a whole new commissions process, recruited a selection panel, gathered a heady mix of partners and allies, advertised, assessed and then awarded grants to artists, grown and bonded a delivery team, sorted the complex financial arrangements between two delivery partners, four major funders across three financial years, seen such brilliant art work developed, and been part of a spectacular international festival at Southbank Centre, all in one year?

But somehow it appears to be true. No wonder we are tired! We’re also very proud.


Our Impact

The first set of evaluation data has started to come in. It’s helping us understand more about what we have done, the impact it has had, and what we need to do better. Here are some of the headlines.

In the last 12 months we have:

  • supported nine 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
  • had audiences of over 14,000 through 309 specific performances, events, workshops, installations and film screenings
  • had 45.6 million ‘opportunities to see’ Unlimited in the media from PR activity (print and online)
  • increased our initial investment from Arts Council England bringing in further funds from Creative Scotland, and most recently from Arts Council of Wales, and extended our reach through Unlimited Impact funding from Spirit of 2012 – bringing our total budget for 2013-2016 to nearly £3 million
  • extended our partnerships though a co-commission with The Space, and are developing another through working with IN-SITE, a series of public realm commissions being developed by Medway Council
  • developed a network of over 80 allies – venues, festivals, producers, promoters and individuals – who share our aims
  • presented about Unlimited in six countries outside the UK.


The audience experience

And what have people made of the work? Here are a few quotes from audiences at Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival:

“I think it definitely improves peoples’ perceptions of art by disabled people.”

“There’s a difference to this artwork that stems directly from peoples’ disability and that’s what makes it so intriguing.  It’s innovative and different from mainstream art.  It’s how their disability impacts on their thinking, their feelings and their daily life experiences which permeates the art.” 

“Some will grab it and gravitate towards it, others will just walk straight past.  There such a diversity of work.  To have so many voices is really exciting.” 


The artist experience

The Unlimited artists have stuff to tell us too: 85% describe their overall experience of Unlimited as good or very good, over 80% think our administrative processes are good or very good and over 85% have found working with their key contact to be good or very good experience.

Here are some of their responses:

 “I found my main contact great to talk things through with, and extremely responsive. It has been an altogether very happy and extremely supported time, being part of Unlimited.”

“I am extremely grateful to have been given the chance to exhibit my visual art at the unlimited festival at the Southbank Centre. Showing my work at such a well known arts venue as part of a well promoted festival, to such a large amount of people has been a fantastic opportunity.”

“Our work has reached a large and diverse audience more quickly than we would have anticipated. I don’t think this would have been the case without the skilled support of the Unlimited team.”

“It exceeded my wildest expectations. It was amazing to have an audience of people from all over the world, as well as key programmers from the UK.”


Looking forwards

80 and 85% happy artists sounds good, but that does mean 15-20% haven’t had such a great experience to date. We’ve some work to do to get all of these statistics up higher next year. The good news is that evaluation feedback has given us a real chance to find to what people want us to keep, and what to shift and change. We can’t promise we can do everything, but we can give it a go!

The first thing we’ve improved is the application process for Round 2 Commissions. The new application portal allows those applying to save their application as they work on it. There is also budget template available and we are advertising our access fund better too, enabling more people to feel confident about applying.

The evaluation responses also gave us some reflections on how artists can make the best application. Attending our launches and general events doesn’t give any material advantage (only 16% of those who gained awards had attended our launch event at Tate), but getting a surgery slot to talk through your application and check it meets the criteria seems to be helpful (57% of those who gained awards had attended a surgery or had a Skype/telephone call about their project). Good job there are still some surgery slots available – face-to-face, by Skype, email or phone!


Changing attitudes

Reflecting back on the year, although I’m happy with the statistics, the reach and the responses, I’m still not satisfied. As we’ve said a number of times, Unlimited is more than just a commissions programme, it’s about shifting the cultural ecology within the UK and beyond it. It’s about ensuring a legacy of equality, so that disabled artists are recognised and supported to be the exceptionally talented and creative artists that they can be, without unnecessary barriers and obstacles. No ifs, no buts.

And whilst the UK is recognised the world over for the sheer quality of the art coming from disabled artists, the UK itself is in danger of going backwards, and creating, rather than removing, such barriers. Just take a look at the summary from the recent Guardian Cultural Professionals on-line chat session, which focused on the problems artists are experiencing such as reduction in support from the Government’s Access to Work scheme.

Today, 3rd December, is the United Nation’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The focus for this year is on ‘the promise of technology’ so it seems fitting that today we are publishing this reflection and pushing it out through our digital channels. It’s a day when disabled people should celebrate their diversity and their place within the world. Sadly, there is not always much to celebrate in the UK for many disabled people.

Unlimited is about changing that. We want to transform the way in which disability is seen, taking it from the dull, stereotypical and just plain wrong reading of ‘limited’ to somewhere else entirely. Disability meaning creative, disability meaning achievement, disability meaning excellence.

If you want to join the 80% of those connected to Unlimited who agree or strongly agree that Unlimited is changing the way in which disability is viewed, then make sure you stay in touch. This is only the end of year one, and we’ve at least two more to go!


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