A Bit Of A Do – new network for Artists and Arts Organisations working with disability

By Maria Thomas on

Drunken Chorus – a theatre company and registered charity based in London. Written by Chris Williams. Supported by Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy’s Funding Network Projects 2017.

Last month we launched DISCO DISCO – a new company of adults with learning disabilities, with whom we are collaborating to make contemporary theatre pieces. Alongside our ongoing commitment to D/deaf audiences / artists, and the use of British Sign Language, DISCO DISCO is a key part of our work within the disability arts sector. However, as relative new comers to the sector, we were keen to connect with other organisations, and to investigate how we can build a network of contacts who can support one another in their work – particularly in the areas of funding, development and sustainability.

In partnership with the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy programme, we organised a mini-conference to bring similar arts organisations together. This event was part of a wider event to launch DISCO DISCO – a mini-festival of work by artists with and without disabilities. The key aim for the mini-conference was to create a new network of organisations, companies and artists, who could meet multiple times a year to discuss industry issues, share fundraising concerns / strategies and update each other on their work and projects. The network is intended to strengthen this specific corner of the arts sector, through better communication and closer collaboration. We invited a range of organisations and individuals, who we felt might be interested in connecting, and in forming a new network – particularly those interested in exploring direct collaboration between artists with and without disabilities. The wider festival was called ‘A Bit Of A Do’ and held at TMRW in Croydon on 21-22 September and was British Sign Language interpreted, with the mini conference on the afternoon of 21 September.

34 individuals attended the mini-conference, representing 24 organisations and 10 independents / freelancers. These ranged from small organisations – funded on a project by project basis, to the very large – fully funded / statutory organisations – so we heard some very different experiences about funding and networks. All attendees either have a disability or work directly with artists with disabilities.

Organisations represented included: Drunken Chorus, DISCO DISCO, Unlimited (and associate artists), Shape Arts, Croydon Council, Club Soda, Reach Theatre Company, Greenwich & Lewisham Young People’s Theatre, Mainspring Arts, Carousel (Brighton), WAC Arts, British Council, Access All Areas, Crystal Palace Festival, Extant, UK Theatre, Ignition Brewery, Pegasus Theatre, Improbable, TMRW, Willow Learning for Life, Mencap, Empowering 2 Change, Freathy Tippet and Arts Council England.

The mini-conference began with an introduction from Drunken Chorus, welcoming delegates and explaining our reasons for holding ‘A Bit Of A Do’. This focused on the funding difficulties faced by smaller companies, like us, when embarking on a new programme of work. This was also a moment to invite the other organisations (including larger companies) to think about the challenges they face, and how they might support, and be supported by, other members of a network.

The first speaker was Fiona Slater, Arts Development Programme Coordinator at Shape Arts, who spoke about Unlimited – an arts commissioning programme run by Shape Arts and Arts Admin. Fiona spoke specifically about their funding awards for emerging artists and for R&D awards – both of which are open now. Our second speaker was Andrew Slegg from Croydon Council Club Soda, who was joined by Sedley Wilson (from the Club Soda committee), to talk about opportunities for artists and local people with disabilities offered by Croydon Council. This focused primarily on local, community, and council service activities in the arts – particularly looking at participation as an ‘entry point’ into the arts, that can lead to the professional arts industry.

Our final opening speaker was Vilma Jackson – a deaf actor who spoke about the lack of opportunities for deaf people within the wider arts industry. Vilma discussed how she hoped a new network could encourage more discussions and collaboration around how to further develop provision for D/deaf accessible projects and performances. She particularly wanted to encourage people to think about how we can secure funding to make this possible – as the provision of BSL / interpreters can be very expensive.

Improbable Theatre then took the lead for the afternoon with a Devoted and Disgruntled open space event, in which delegates discussed the provocation:

How can new and existing networks help support artists and arts organisations working with disability?

Everyone present gets the opportunity to pose individual smaller questions relating to the overall question, and then break out groups are formed, which people can dip in and out of, and work together to come up with answers, plans and further questions. Everything that was discussed is available via the Devoted and Disgruntled website. Improbable will go on to host a much larger D&D event early next year on access and disability in the arts, which will follow up on some of the conversations from our event.

To end the mini-conference we asked Ignition Brewery from Lewisham to host a beer tasting session. Ignition’s beer is brewed, bottled and poured by people with learning disabilities and it was wonderful to have them round off the afternoon. They discussed with delegates the financial model that had allowed them to develop their project. Will, one of the company directors, explained their social enterprise model, and their drive towards sustainability.

Keep an eye on our social media (@drunkenchorus facebook.com/drunkenchorus) and website for updates on the network, and when we’ll next be getting together.

Posted by Maria Thomas

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