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photo of two female dancers from Corali Dance company posing against a wall on which their shadows are cast in green

Big Chroma by Corali Dance Company

It’s a bold question to pose, especially at a time when funding cuts conspire to put all creative organisations on the defensive: how do we perceive, discuss and measure quality in work by artists with learning disabilities? Bella Todd reports on the performing arts aspect of the Creative Minds conference, held on 10th March at Brighton Dome - and asks some pertinent questions to stimulate further debate.

Judging by the sell-out attendance for Monday’s Creative Minds conference at Brighton Dome – which included representatives from Tate, National Portrait Gallery and Sadler’s Wells as well as specialist arts organisations, funding bodies, academics, programmers and practitioners – it needed asking. Only the critics were, in the main, conspicuously absent from the first stage of what is already a national debate.

Managed and presented by artists with learning disabilities in association with Carousel, Creative Minds jettisoned individual speakers in favour of showcased work and group discussion.

I caught the premiere of Corali Dance Company’s ‘Vivid’, in which four dancers explored the overlapping territory of their dreams, and scenes from Face Front Inclusive Theatre’s ‘Laundry Boy’, about a young man struggling to stretch his wings between an ardent girlfriend and overprotective mother. Others saw visual art by Action Space and Rocket Artists, and Carousel's film project Oska Bright.

To kick-start post-show discussion, each company responded to four questions: How do you develop your work to make sure it is of a good quality? Why do you think that your work is more than therapy? What do you want the audience to get from your work? What have people said about your work?

Both Corali Dance and Face Front discussed their process with enthusiastic rigour: they spoke about idea maps and hot seating, working with award-winning writers or visiting the Tate for inspiration. Dancer DJ eloquently described the need to ensure ‘what feels good and what looks good match up’.

There was an interesting exchange about work-in-progress showings: Corali use them, but only to invited guests already familiar with and sympathetic to their style. Another company director in the audience felt work-in-progress showings per se betray ‘an uncertainty about the work’.

I wondered what made Corali shy away from full-on public scratch nights, and what made the other company so set on demonstrating assurance at the possible expense of openness. When, as a marginalised voice, you finally win the opportunity to express yourself, how do you feel about listening?

Meanwhile the idea of ‘showing people what we can do’ kept surfacing in answer to questions about both motivation and reception.

‘Laundry Boy’ was good, one audience member with a learning disability had fed-back during the tour, because ‘It showed us that disabled people can work in professional arts’.

Are learning disabled artists still stuck at the stage of feeling they have to prove they ‘can’? No wonder, when each company had their own bugbear variation on the stock audience member response: ‘How wonderful that they remembered it all!’ Which attitude do we try to change first?

Discussion circled around the quandary of whether or not to identify yourself as ‘learning disabled’ (Face Front confessed to having two or three differently worded pieces of publicity) and the difficulty of securing tours (which Times critic Donald Hutera, side-stepping the issue of quality, identified as the first barrier to obtaining reviews).

One organiser of music events took issue with the use of the word ‘quality’ altogether: ‘art is not a competition’ he said, ‘it’s an emotional response’. But others felt that being critiqued was a vital part of growing and improving as artists. The debate needed forcing forward, and Suzie Birchwood of Arc Dance Company made a late bid to ban the word ‘inspirational’. Despite having received several ‘lovely’ reviews, she said, she longed for her company to receive ‘feedback that was difficult to hear’.

Creative Minds South East was just the start of the conversation. A second event is planned for Bristol in October, a third for 2015, and the website has a forum on which we are all being encouraged to post. It was the kind of conference, inevitably, where every answer seeds two more questions, complicated by the fact we’re lumping together artists with diverse disabilities, working in different art forms, with varying levels of professional engagement. And that’s before you get started on the subject of how we decide any art is ‘good’ in the first place.

But I came away feeling how vital it is that we do have this conversation – not least because, between the audience members and the absent critics on Monday, we had managed so little direct critical engagement with the work on show. As a critic, the best position I can hope to write from is a sort of informed subjectivity. But some art presents as more subjective than others. I suspect the most immediate way to counter this is to ask more difficult questions of each other. So here are a few of mine:

  • What sorts of feedback have learning disabled artists found genuinely meaningful and constructive? How should we balance the responsibility to lift aspirations without the danger of crushing them?
  • As critics we look for what is distinctive. If some of what is distinctive about a performer derives from their learning disability, how should the critic approach this?
  • What sorts of creative choices made by learning disabled artists are ‘mainstream’ critics most in danger of overlooking and undervaluing?
  • To those learning disabled artists who want the audience to know that they are learning disabled: where do we draw the line between incorporating an informed awareness of the specific challenges you face as an artist, and the patronising act of ‘making allowances’?
  • Now that all artists are expected to be self-publicists, do blogs and other platforms provide an opportunity for learning disabled artists to enhance people’s understanding and appreciation of their work with commentary and context… or yet another accessibility barrier?
  • Is too much learning-disabled art being made in a creative vacuum? How often do learning disabled artists get to be audience members, or the opportunity and encouragement to be critics themselves?
  • How much value does the 250-words-and-a-star-rating reviewing system of the shrinking mainstream press have for you anyway? It’s old and cold. Do you think there might be a better way?

Creative Minds: Visual Arts presentation

12 March 2014


Creative Minds: Visual Arts presentation

The morning session of the conference saw a presentation by the artist Thompson Hall from Action Space, who run two dedicated art studios in London for the learning disabled community. Hall responded to the conference questions alongside the Rocket Artists who gave a much more visual presentation. Colin Hambrook asks is there potential for learning disabled artists to make the world of visual arts more accessible to the ordinary person?

Creative Minds: ‘What as a practitioner are you going to do now?’

11 March 2014


Creative Minds:  ‘What as a practitioner are you going to do now?’

The Creative Minds event held in Brighton on Monday 10th March was full to capacity with a good mix of delegates from different roles and organisations. The work was impressive presenting visual art, performance and films that were full of life. Creative Minds was well organised with plenty of activity and scope for discussion and sharing of practice and thought. The speakers were engaging, their presentations witty, and their messages strong. To add to the debate Kristina Veasey asks ‘What as a practitioner are you going to do now?’