Unlimited excitement over new work, but London artists miss out again


Disabled artists from the UK are set to collaborate with colleagues from across the world in a series of new disability arts projects commissioned for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

The 13 new commissions – worth a total of £820, 000 – are the second series of projects to be funded through the three-year Unlimited programme, set up to create new work in the lead-up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Among the new commissions, the contemporary visual artist Rachel Gadsden will work with South African artist and activist Nondumiso Hlwele and a Cape Town women’s group on a piece that will explore their “shared desire to communicate important messages about human fragility through art”.

Another work will see 12 disabled and non-disabled artists –including the disabled actor and dancer David Toole – take part in an eight-week residency in South Africa to create a new dance work.

And Caution, by the Northern Ireland-based Sinead O’Donnell, will bring together performance artists from Canada, the US, Japan and Kurdistan to collaborate on a project exploring hidden impairments.

But there was disappointment that Unlimited has again failed to commission work from among the many talented disabled artists living and working in London itself.

The two London commissions – for the “inclusive” dance company Candoco and the performance artist Bobby Baker – are both seen as coming from the mainstream arts world, with Baker only recently beginning to address her disabled identity in her work. Candoco also secured one of the two successful London commissions in the first set of projects last year.

The disabled artist Ju Gosling said these works should have been commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad’s far larger budget for mainstream arts.

Gosling said some “wonderful” projects from outside London had been commissioned through Unlimited.

But she said the failure to fund work from among London’s talented but struggling disability arts community showed how disability arts had become “invisible” in London since London Disability Arts Forum lost its Arts Council funding and was forced to close in 2009.

She added: “There are still a large number of disabled artists in London, and we are still making work, often showing it internationally, but while the official policy is to ‘mainstream’ us, the reality is that we have never been more marginalised in relation to Arts Council activity.”

Colin Hambrook, editor of Disability Arts Online, particularly welcomed the commission for Gadsden, whose work he said was “extraordinary” and whose project “looks very exciting”.

He said the Unlimited commissions “are playing safe in a way but they were always intending to go for mainstream artists. I don’t think Unlimited was ever going to be anything else.”

Hambrook said the arts as a whole were being “decimated”, and added: “Yes, disability arts is being marginalised, but in context so are all the arts being marginalised.”

An Arts Council England spokeswoman said it wanted the artists leading the projects to be disabled people – as with Marc Brew and Claire Cunningham, the Scottish choreographers creating part of the Candoco commission – rather than insisting that the arts organisations themselves were disabled-led.

She said: “We certainly recognise that historically disabled artists have not been recognised sufficiently. By putting money into this programme it was one of the ways we wanted to pro-actively address that.

“The panel selected the projects they felt were strongest, that they were most excited about and had most potential and met the aims of the commissions.”

27 January 2011

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