Interview by Mark Tamer
Shape Arts is a disability-led arts organisation which works to improve access to culture for disabled people by providing opportunities for disabled artists. We sat down with the Head of Programme at Shape Arts; Jeff Rowlings, to find out more.
Can you tell us about Shape Arts and what your work as Head of Programme involves?
Shape supports disabled artists, we produce and curate creative content, and we run learning programmes, consultancy and training to improve inclusion and accessibility in the arts and cultural sectors. We encourage the removal of barriers that society puts in the way of disabled people, rather than, as society tends to do, place an emphasis (or blame) on individual health issues or impairments. This approach is known as the social model of disability [ed. link below].
An important aspect of our work is to support the dynamic agency of the artist and help to get their creative output shown and recognised, as well ensuring that organisations feel more confident to open up their programmes and opportunities to all people. Changing negative perceptions of disability often plays a part in this.
My own role involves juggling, essentially. As is common in the creative sector there is never enough time or resource to do more than keep lots of moving parts connected in a purposeful way, hopefully leading to something constructive, challenging and interesting, both for the makers and participants of creative content. That said, while it helps to enjoy being an organiser, probably the most rewarding part of the role is seeing the artists we support move forward and have their vision or ambitions realised.
What do you think are some of the challenges faced by disabled artists?
As you can imagine, this is wide ranging. For example, outside of the big cities disabled artists face much in the way of cultural isolation as well as physical issues such a lack of accessible transport and facilities, and accessible organisations to connect with. Conversely, within the cities, where cost is a huge issue, disabled artists might have a greater availability of opportunities but not be able to afford them. This is often due to entry barriers to education, employment and housing. Read any set of stats you like and it seems that disabled people are usually in the worse-off categories - caught in vicious cycles that can perpetuate these issues over generations.
Systemic barriers are a major problem in that they stop disabled creatives from getting started, and frustrate their careers if they do manage to get anywhere. By that I mean the processes you go through to get anywhere, such as recruitment or completing applications, and the processes within institutions that make things run. A small but important example is the issue that artists are often made to wade through dense written text in order to apply for opportunities of any kind - something which causes difficulty and frustration for many artists, let alone those who face communication or learning barriers.
In fact, for many disabled artists this kind of barrier, along with coming up against negative and hostile attitudes, can turn the creative industries into a fortress they cannot get into, no matter how talented they are. To go back to recruitment and applications for a moment, the point is, it is fine to use a selection process in order to judge candidates fairly, but it is only fair if you permit adjustments to take place, so that everyone can take part in the process. Being flexible with applications and even deadlines can turn a closed organisation into an open one with little cost or effort.
So there’s that. Another issue is the widespread lack of understanding about invisible disabilities, and this occurs across all kinds of impairments or health conditions. It is notable to see the deep well of mistrust and intolerance that gets tapped into when someone who does not look or appear to be disabled asks for some kind of consideration, adjustment or support. Which is both odd and alarming when you appreciate that most disabilities are not immediately obvious or visible at all. One major consequence of this is the toll it takes on the energy, wellbeing and mental health of such people, who have to endlessly justify and explain issues which should either be obvious to others, or which might involve sensitive issues they do not wish to go into, certainly not in a public sphere.
Shape Open Retrospective 2018. Image c. Rachel Cherry
Shape is a strategic organisation, and we look for win-win situations to not only get ahead, but, in these lean and difficult times, in order to survive. What I have described above, however, is a brief insight into a lose-lose scenario that threatens to turn talented and motivated people onto a downward spiral unless some kind of support is put in place. This is why changing attitudes towards disabled people is such an important area of work – for us at Shape, but also everywhere: it should be the concern of all creative bodies who work with, welcome or develop people.
Some of these issues are recognised within the sector, but we are living at a time when, even prior to the pandemic, organisations have become risk-averse and unwilling to make changes, especially where there is a perceived risk of cost attached. So among many creatives, frustration, anger and despair is widespread, and talented artists (and other cultural workers) all too often give up in the face of what seems like overwhelming rejection and obstruction. Looking ahead, with so much of our lives having been overturned by the Covid crisis, it may be that organisations will be more considerate about individual needs, but let’s wait and see ...
Linking back to my point about systemic issues, disabled individuals often feel powerless to change how institutions work, especially if the only route to challenging them is through means they don’t find accessible. They may encounter talk about diversity, but this has to be accompanied by an inclusive mindset or else it’s just that: talk. In general, artists would love nothing more than to let their art do the talking, but as we often see, if they are blocked from the opportunity to do so, then they are left voiceless as well as endlessly stalled in their career.
What are the ways, that able-bodied artists can think about making their work more inclusive for disabled people when presenting their work?
Here are four statements:
All people should have an inclusive mindset and be actively taking account of others’ access needs.
All people have a right to equal access and fair treatment.
The job of the artist is to create art and the job of the platform/ host venue/ interpretative body is to consider the audience’s contact with it, their needs and experience.
Any artist who wishes to break through to reach a wider public should consider the importance of how their work is received, consumed, visited or experienced as much as how and why it is made.
In their own way, each statement is true, and yet I’d say they seldom sit comfortably together when we think of our experiences of cultural activity. There are obvious tensions between them and you could say it is the role of Shape (and of us all) to help harmonise them as best we can. For example, it would plainly be wrong for a host venue to not consider the audience’s access needs - yet this often happens. Equally it would be wrong to expect a disabled artist to consider audience / visitor access, whilst not expecting this of a non-disabled artist; although this often happens, too.
Fortunately, there are some ways forward here. For existing works in existing spaces, there are some adjustments which can be made of a simple, practical nature, and which are mentioned in our website resources [ed. link below]. There is always a supply chain of sorts involved in getting work into a space from the initial point of commission, and the key is to consider access as early on in the process as possible. What we often see in practice is the result of leaving access to the end of the process, when people are left to deal with complex issues at what can often be an urgent, final stage of delivery or execution.
Artist Abi Palmer (right)_interactive performance at Tate Modern. Photo_Becky Dann
Once again the solution is to think more strategically. For the host venue or gallery it is worth considering what we might call the curation of access alongside other curatorial plans, since good, well-conceived accessibility should enhance the visitor experience rather than be relegated to the ‘have to do’s’ that get added to the exhibition or performance once the ‘important’ work is done.
An example might be an artist planning an art trail over a hilly landscape. Nobody is saying an artist can’t design an art trail over the areas they wish to explore; but what would be questionable is if no thought is given to how people who can’t get to the steep parts might experience it another way, through film, images, oral descriptions etc. – especially when common sense tells us that at least half the public would not be able to take the steepest route. Or if we take a sound installation, giving some creative thought as to how to represent the sounds to those who might not be able to hear them could open doors to a new way of understanding or developing the work, even if it is work to be done at a later stage, or in another project.
Of course, examining the smell and feel of sound could find the artist straying pointlessly from their path; equally, some people may not enjoy or be able to tolerate a sensory bombardment upon entering a show or exhibition. And there could be issues around the access competing with the art (although for those who depend on access, this is a moot point, since without it the art might as well not exist).
But in any event, a dynamic, more curatorial approach to access will undoubtedly lead to more risk-taking, more innovation, and eventually - not everywhere, but in many places - may well be the future of how we experience and make art.
Indeed, as expectations change in line with the wider use of technology, I’d say it’s not hard to envisage a growing appetite for a total art experience, and for this to be standard, replacing the current, less integrated, model. This is particularly relevant now that - mid pandemic - more work is taking place online or having a hybrid existence between physical and digital spaces. Tech used well, and well researched, may bring low cost solutions to all these spaces, both in terms of access and general production.
In short, the best work is achieved through courage and imagination; the same applies to access.
Shape Open Retrospective 2018. Photo_ Rachel Cherry
Finally, what is the one bit of advice you can give to an artist? (we ask everyone this)
Well, being an artist is an uncertain occupation, and we could not be in more uncertain times. So I’d suggest mapping things out as best you can: if nothing else, it may help to alleviate anxiety, and conserve precious time and energy.
Part of this involves researching the organisations and individuals you want to approach so that making connections is easier for both sides. Ask questions of people who know the things you don’t know and be open to learning from them. Things happen very fast at times, so it helps to know your capacity to change gear when you need to. And while your creativity may come in any shape or form, treat the part of your practice that others engage with like a business, and like any professional be courteous, return calls and emails, respect people’s time and observe deadlines.
For disabled artists, I’d say be honest about the support you need and don’t hold back from asking for it. Ask for flexibility where you need it, and where, such as the example of deadlines, you need extra time or consideration on access grounds, then communicate this as early as you can. There is a great access rider resource written by disabled artists, which might be helpful [ed. link below].
As mentioned, battling negative perceptions of disability can be exhausting and frustrating. Often the art and creative agency of disabled artists is overlooked, with attention going straight to their biography, or to whatever health condition they may be living with. I think that, while we need to continue to fight to get their art profiled, for the individual, it can be useful to consider how to turn this to their own advantage, saving energy in the process. What I mean is, you may wish people to engage with you in this order: art, then artist, then back story, but there is usually pressure to do this the other way round. Whatever the issues surrounding this, it’s useful to recognise that it happens and to plan how to deal with it: you may need to adapt your profile over time and how you describe what you do.
I think it’s important to know you can swivel things round as you need to, in order to make things work for you. Remember that at times, agents, funders or commissioners will see in you something unique which has an unbreakable relationship with the work you are making; so if that happens, and you sense that this uniqueness is valued properly, then be ready: that could be the moment to strike and make your deal.
Thank you Jeff for sharing the work you and Shape Arts do with us,
Bringing IMAgination to life
Shape Arts website: https://www.shapearts.org.uk
Social Model of Disability: https://www.shapearts.org.uk/news/social-model-of-disability
ShapeArts resources: https://www.shapearts.org.uk/Pages/News/Category/resources
Access Rider Resource: https://www.accessdocsforartists.com/about
IMA Arts Survey
IMA is currently conducting a survey on artists and we'd like your help to fill it out. This survey will go towards helping us write the IMA handbook for artists, and as a thank you, we'll enter you into our raffle draw for a chance to win a £25 Amazon Voucher.