Some of the country’s best-known disabled artists have come together in the House of Lords to celebrate a project that will tell the story of the disability arts movement.
The reception marked the first year of the three-year, £1 million project that will bring together about 2 500 objects celebrating a history that dates back to the late 1970s, through the national Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA).
Much of the project will see the NDACA team travelling around the country to produce digital copies of the most significant work of disabled artists for the archive, which will be made available through an interactive website.
NDACA is also building a physical archive of some of the most influential work to come from the disability arts movement, and will produce pop-up exhibitions, a touring documentary, and work with Disability History Month.
Among the artists at the event in the House of Lords, which was hosted by NDACA’s patron, the disabled peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, was Tanya Raabe-Webber.
Raabe-Webber, best known for two collections of portraits, one of significant figures in the disability arts movement and another of pioneering disabled activists, said she felt “very proud” to be included in the archive.
She told Disability News Service (DNS): “I’m a big believer in saving history. I wanted to create these portraits but I also wanted somewhere for them to belong. I want the world to see them.
“I want these portraits to be seen and accessible by the general public for people to remember who these people were and how life has changed.
“The disability arts movement… highlights disabled people’s lives. It highlights our culture. That’s not recognised, our culture.”
Tony Heaton, chief executive of Shape Arts and founder of NDACA, told guests that the event was “a bit of a dream”, more than 20 years after he and fellow disabled artist Allan Sutherland began discussing the need for an historical collection and archive.
He told guests: “We sort of said we need to catch some of this history. If we don’t do it, somebody else will and it will probably be a non-disabled person and they will probably get it wrong.”
Heaton said the disability arts movement reflected the “unique creativity of disabled artists”.
He said: “It started here in the UK, formed in that red-hot cauldron of political insurgence where we really did take to the streets out here [outside the Houses of Parliament] and fought against the injustice of having no civil rights.
“There is still a lot to do but we should be really proud in this country of disability arts and what we have achieved.”
Sutherland told DNS that he remembered telling Heaton in the late 1980s: “We can save what is being produced by our movement but if we don’t take action, a lot of the stuff is going to go in the skip.”
He said the project was currently concentrating on “creating something that is successful online”, but was also building a collection which “will get used in all sorts of ways”.
He said: “There is stuff in the archive that could create exhibitions on every level from the Tate down to your local library.”
Asked why the project was important, he said: “It is so that young artists are aware of what happened before, so they know they are not the first people to be treading this way. There is a set of ideas that people can draw upon.
“I heard someone from The Women’s Library speaking about 10 years ago and she was saying that they had got loads of Suffragette banners but nothing from Greenham Common.
“Really important stuff can be that transient. It is so important to recognise the importance of preserving stuff.”
Baroness Campbell told guests that the archive was “a unique expression of disabled people’s liberation journey”.
She said: “Our story of escaping from institutions of isolation to demanding our rightful place in society has been an essential part of our liberation and our heritage.
“Champion this archive. It reflects the true story of our civil rights movement.”
Disabled artist Katherine Araniello welcomed the opportunity the archive would provide to show disabled people’s work, but she said it was important for this work also to become “more integrated fully into the mainstream”.
She told DNS: “There are a lot of artists that happen to be disabled and they make really good work, but their work should not be confined under just the umbrella of disability arts.
“Disability arts is a good thing as long as it filters into other areas of art. People need to give it value and recognition and see some of the work as being as interesting as any other art.”
She said she hoped some of the funding for the project would go to the artists themselves, “so they can continue to make work, because making work costs money”.
And she suggested that the event was perhaps “a sign of how disability arts is conforming”.
She said: “Disability arts is meant to be avant-garde and I haven’t seen anything tonight that tells me this is an avant-garde experience.
“I am not excited. It is just a very comfortable environment and we are all nice to each other and socialising.
“It’s good to reflect where we’ve come from but we desperately need to include exciting and edgy art that might not make an audience feel so comfortable.”
Singer and activist John Kelly, who performed three disability rights anthems, said afterwards that it was “weird” being a guest inside the House of Lords rather than taking part in direct action protests in and outside parliament.
He raised concerns that young disabled artists were not being given the opportunity to develop their talent, for example by mainstream venues and festivals.
He said: “Maybe this is a moment to stick a flag in the sand and say we need to give the next generation of young disabled people a platform, to see what they want to say about their experiences.”
He added: “You can see why young disabled people are struggling to get there, not because they haven’t got talent, but because they haven’t got support and they are not being given the opportunity.”
Journalist and broadcaster Mik Scarlet said he believed the disability arts movement would soon make a major breakthrough.
He said: “The disability arts scene is so political and always has been and that is why the art it makes is so amazing.
“Art has to come from a real position of struggle. Disability arts is going to be the next big arts scene that produces some work that changes the world.”