Earlier this year we worked with Alchemy Film & Arts and The Skinny to offer an open-call programme of writing workshops for early-career writers, addressing artists’ moving image and experimental film. The interview below was published in The Skinny and is the first in a new series of commissioned writing that result from this partnership programme.
Lauren La Rose (she/they) is an American multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and educator based in Hawick, Scotland. Passionate about social justice, she believes in the power of storytelling and investigates the ways in which artists and activists have historically worked together.
HOW OPEN IS THE DOOR?
by Lauren La Rose
As COVID-19 threatens to increase the diversity deficit in the arts, it’s more important than ever to create an inclusive arts sector in the UK. Art Councils, Creative Scotland and even the government (both Scottish and UK) praise diversity, but in practice struggle to accommodate the many societal barriers facing people with lived experience of disability and/or chronic illness. The future may be accessible, but will it be equitable?
Alex Callaghan is an artist, activist and researcher currently studying an MA in Arts, Cultural and Festival Management at Queen Margaret University. Inspired by disability-led movements, he is focusing his dissertation on a non-hierarchical, participatory research project. He conducted an online survey and facilitated disabled-led focus groups in to co-design disability policy recommendations for Creative Scotland’s consideration, due to be submitted by the group this fall.
Collective projects like Not Going Back to Normal (NGBTN) have laid the groundwork for Callaghan’s research, especially Nelly Dean’s three key demands in their contribution, Manifesto. In the opening essay, ‘Creating The Impossible World’, project curators Harry Josephine Giles and Sasha Saben Callaghan propose a radical future without normality. Lack of representation is a problem throughout the entire cultural sector, and many artists in Scotland not only face discrimination but rural isolation as well.
In Manifesto, Nelly Dean writes about the history of the Disability Discrimination Act (now known as the Equality Act). Before 1995 it was legal to discriminate against disabled people in the UK. Tired of everyday discrimination, “Disabled and Deaf artists led the campaign for what became the DDA Act and tied themselves to buses on Westminster Bridge in London“. (There are even stories of people meeting their spouse while handcuffed to a city bus.) That’s why Dean’s question is so urgent: “Why are we still having to fight the same ignorant discrimination and lack of voice in the arts nearly 30 years on?”
Giles writes a call to action in the preface of 14 Ways to Watch a Film, a new interactive zine commissioned for an online exhibition at Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival 2021: “I cannot watch experimental film as I would like to, or in the conditions in which film is intended to be watched. And so I have constructed yet more aggressively artificial conditions in which to watch films again. By suggesting new ways to watch films, experiments not in making but in watching film, perhaps moving image can move again. May we move.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY
As inclusivity and diversity have become buzzwords, conversations around access start and end with money. Even with more festivals going entirely online, recent research shows that although online delivery may initially increase access it has the potential to create more barriers for people with protected identities in the long term. As Scottish scholar Ruth Eikhof argues, in her essay titled ‘COVID-19, inclusion and workforce diversity in the cultural economy: what now, what next?’, “there are fears that fewer opportunities to meet face-to-face will exacerbate existing inequalities in accessing networks. Where industry events do take place in the physical world, admittance may be limited or events may be less accessible, generally because of general transport and travel restrictions, and specifically for workers who are at higher risk of COVID-19 infection. Overall, the difficulties in accessing key networks that workers from under-represented groups have been shown to have had pre-COVID are likely to persist or worsen – at least in the short term.”
Alex Callaghan tells me that “unless there is a meaningful policy approach the talk of widening diversity within the arts is not going to happen, and you will actually see things revert back [and] become less diverse.” According to Callaghan, “Accessibility is one key part of the picture. Another key part is making things more inclusive for disabled people to produce art. For me it’s not just a case of making venues more accessible, [and] ensuring digital provision remains on offer post pandemic whenever that will be if ever, but there has to be a real concerted effort to be working from the ground up. To have an inclusive ecology where disabled artists can actually produce art more easily.” He goes on to say that “funding bodies may listen and talk about the barriers, but if you’ve got a lack of people with lived experience working internally then it’s hard to get a grasp on things, [and] how to actually change them.”
Stigma, coupled with a lack of clear policies put in place for disabled artists, makes it incredibly hard to find inclusive opportunities. In Scotland, there are very low numbers of disabled people working in the visual arts with fewer than 5% of the permanent and freelance staff in visual arts RFOs having identified issues related to gender, ethnicity and disability. Survey findings from the 2021 #WeShallNotBeRemoved campaign reveal the shocking precarity facing Disabled and BAME artists as, “one third describe themselves as precariously employed or on a zero hours contract, a further third have experienced homelessness”, and “nearly two thirds are worried that they will have to leave the creative industries”. While diversifying the arts has become a marketable catchphrase for institutions, no Arts Councils have formally responded to the findings from the survey.
According to Creative Scotland’s EDI policy, the door is open for Disabled and Deaf artists, but Callaghan asks, “How open is the door?” and “On what grounds do you get through the door?” Financial recovery plans have been criticised for prioritising organisations rather than workers, and that project-based business models further alienate workers with protected characteristics. Even with the protection of the Equality Act, there is limited financial support for the many different types of experiences Disabled artists face. Helen Fox tells me that “we are not a small group of people but are often divided into our separate disability groups and so suppressed as minority groups that there is no financial assistance or support for.”
Ruth Eikhof further argues that workers from “at risk” groups are more likely to experience discrimination because of COVID-19. “Workers who require additional safety measures, for instance extra space, physically separated workspaces or extra cleaning, as well as more in-depth, individual consultations…make them ‘costlier’ human resources.” Pre covid research has also shows that, “employers’ lack of knowledge about disability made them less likely to even consider contracting a Disabled person, even if no reasonable adjustments were required”, and “it is likely that the lack of clarity about ‘at risk’ workers will make employers ‘play safe’ and favour workers without potential “at risk” characteristics. Such practices would particularly negatively impact people of colour and workers living with disability, for whom infection and mortality rates have been reported to be significantly higher.”
QUOTAS FOR CHANGE
In order to make the arts more inclusive, we need industry-wide change, not just progressive policy changes. Eikhof writes about three drivers of unequal workplace participation and advancement. “The first of these drivers is a Eurocentric, white, middle class, non-disabled and male idea of talent”; the second driver is “the persistence of misogynist and discriminatory working cultures in large shares of the cultural economy”; and the third driver is “the cultural economy’s typical business models and their resultant exclusionary work and employment practices.” A social model of disability means that policy and industry-wide change needs to name and dismantle these unjust drivers. It’s complex, but not impossible.
Collective action works. Callaghan and Fox feel energised by the passion for change from the focus group participants. Callaghan tells me, “It’s become evident [that] Creative Scotland is a key part of the picture but I also think that the Scottish government is a key part as well. Perhaps there’s room to argue that the Scottish government should actually be providing Creative Scotland with the resources to ensure that they can better support Disabled people.”
For the focus group, policy recommendations are just the start. There is momentum to keep meeting after Callaghan turns in his dissertation and continue to add weight to these policy changes. “I feel that opening up the conversation by asking questions that aren’t regularly being asked, is a promising starting point to working towards something that can actually reduce these barriers.” People are committed to creating a genuinely diverse creative sector. “There is a real appetite to see progressive change in the arts, with a key emphasis on ensuring that Disabled people can maintain and build careers in the arts.” There’s a lot to be optimistic about.
There is, however, still much to unpack. Callaghan admits that it’s tricky to make universal policy change, but that change is still important. “Some things have changed, but the root causes of things like discrimination are firmly embedded in so many institutions.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE ART
Disabled led groups like #NGBTN and #WWNBR have amplified Disabled voices in Scotland, reaching a global audience. While there is a passion for change, there is a real concern that Disability arts is a silo, often leaving Disabled artists without the means to integrate into mainstream projects. Fox expresses her frustration, “Disabled people shouldn’t be seen as ‘other’. The idea of a ‘Disabled festival’ is off-putting to me. It feels like we’d be corralled into a space, given funding so the mainstream wouldn’t have to ‘deal’ with us…I have thus far avoided writing a play specifically about disability because it feels ‘otherish’. Nearly a quarter of all people are Disabled, where do you see this quarter of people represented?”
Callaghan agrees. “Ensuring you have access at the heart so Disabled people can access culture is key, but there is also the other side of the picture where you need to have an inclusive industry that allows Disabled artists to produce culture not just consume it.” In the last paragraph of Dean’s Manifesto they write, “Art organisations treat Disabled and Deaf artists differently – they don’t see our work as quality, they don’t understand the politicalness of it. They judge it as inferior. That needs to change.” This sentiment was shared throughout the 33 responses of to Callaghan’s online survey. Survey respondents expressed that “Creative Scotland don’t publicise Disabled artists enough. That it’s a few Disabled artists and organisations that receive funding regularly, when there’s a wider pool of Disabled artists out there who aren’t getting the recognition or the funding that they need to enhance their career, and the reach of their work.” Many respondents were unaware that there is even public funding available.
Creative Scotland is setting up their own EDI communities, but there is skepticism as to whether these groups “have any teeth” to make change. Callaghan proposes that “if you had a national organisation you could have specialists in there, potentially who are well versed in funding applications, who could be giving additional support that Creative Scotland can’t do because they are constrained with things like time.”
As Dean writes, “Look around there are some great people out there who are Disabled, Deaf, are BAME, LGBTQI+, have Learning Disabilities, are mental health survivors, abuse survivors, are Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants. There is a rich talent that is being ignored… till our creative voices are filling submissions for funding and when it becomes competitive then funders have done their work right.” If we truly want equality in the arts, we have to create it. Building collective agency works. Even if it starts small. “We’re different together, not apart.”