A profile of Ruth Gould, Creative DIrector of North West Disability Arts Forum, by Joe Bidder.
Raised in Croxteth, one of Liverpool’s toughest neighbourhoods, Ruth Gould has forged a unique and influential position for disability arts in her native city.
North West Disability Arts Forum, NWDAF, played a vital role in securing European Capital of Culture status for Liverpool for 2008. As Creative Director for NWDAF, Gould has crafted many enduring partnerships and succeeded in placing disability arts at the forefront of Liverpool’s arts and culture.
In 2005 DaDaFest (NWDAF’s annual deaf and disability arts festival) was named Merseyside Tourism Award best small arts event alongside Antony Gormley’s statues in the sea which won best large arts event.
Disability Arts and NWDAF have a high profile in Liverpool, which is probably the only town in Britain to publicly acknowledge the contribution that disability arts makes to the vibrancy of the city. This status does not come as a right; it comes from vision, creative drive, years of patient networking, teamwork and a tremendous amount of hard work. As a consequence, NWDAF has earned its place at the forefront of disability arts movement in Britain: it is the largest disability arts agency in Britain and Ruth Gould is a major figure in the arts.
The early years
Gould’s early years were not easy. A genetic hearing impairment was unidentified until she was seven, when she was made to wear a wire and box hearing device safety-pinned to her dress, and then underwent several experimental operations. Gould says little about it but one can imagine the victimization and exclusion she must have endured in ‘60s Liverpool. It was a negative experience and her self esteem was low.
“My mother was an important influence” Gould says “and never stopped fighting for me to be included in mainstream schools” and adds with some pride “In school holidays she was an artists’ model at Liverpool Art School when David Hockney was there.”
She failed the 11 plus and went to a comprehensive school. During this period her mother qualified as a teacher and continued a successful fight for Gould’s rights to a mainstream education and intensive speech therapy.
“I got five O’levels” she recalls “the second best result in my year, but when I tried to get work, successively as a midwife, a teacher, a physiotherapist, I was rejected for all of these because I was deaf”
“I left home when I was eighteen and worked as a local government pen-pusher” Gould recalls “It was depressing and isolating and I lived in a small council flat.”
In 1980 she met Tom, her future husband, a musician and illustrator, and then fell pregnant. “It was a positive turning-point” she says “It gave me a reason to live.”
Gould became involved with dance and movement via Liverpool’s Houghton Jacobs Dance School and the Bluecoat Arts Centre. It was to be a significant time for her “I discovered my body could be used as an instrument. I was supple; I could do the splits; I could mime” she recalls “I was turned on by performance. A spark had been ignited within me.”
In 1983 she successfully auditioned for the Liverpool Theatre School, when 400 applicants competed for 60 places, with an interpretive dance piece based on Eliot’s poetic masterpiece “The Wasteland”.
“The Theatre School was my first positive experience of being educated” says Gould “I began to surmount all the negative experiences of the past, gaining confidence in speech and public speaking” But in 1985 Gould had a second baby and had to quit theatre school a year before the course ended.
For three years there was a constant struggle to survive in a Merseyside stricken with rapid industrial decline and political self-destruction. The Goulds made a decisive move in 1988. “We heard about the School of Creative Arts in Sydney” she states “Around that time we just couldn’t make it, couldn’t get work, couldn’t get off benefits … so we applied for the one-year course in Australia and were accepted” and adds emphatically “We sold everything we had, which wasn’t much, and left Liverpool.”
Ruth discovers Disability Arts
On the road
“Sydney was great for us” says Gould “The School of Creative Arts was linked with our church, which was supportive, and we both completed the course and I subsequently became a tutor in movement, mime and theatrical experimental theatre.”
Freed from the low expectations of life in Liverpool, Tom and Ruth Gould formed a duo and went on the road in New Zealand for seven months during 1990, touring their community based workshop and performance programme around the country. There was a also a short tour to the USA for the duo.
In 1991 they were ready to return to Britain but their destination was to be Glasgow not Liverpool. “There was excitement in the city” says Gould “It had been European Capital of Culture in 1990, and it was fascinating to live in Glasgow because the arts were on the streets … just everywhere…”
They moved back to Merseyside in 1992: Tom got a job teaching music in Birkenhead and Ruth taught college courses in movement and performed one-women shows, worked occasionally in film and TV, and experimented with BSL in movement/mime.
Between 1994 and 1996 Gould managed Wirral Carers a government funded scheme promoting work in the community, and when that funding ran out, she was made temporary manager for the ACID Fund - Arts & Cultural Industries Development Fund. ACID distributed a £500,000 funding pot provided jointly by Objective 1 European funding, Arts Council and Liverpool City Council.
“It got me into the world of arts management” states Gould “I was awarding grants to artists, bringing people together in multi-disciplined panels”, and then makes the all too familiar depressing observation “not one disabled person benefited from that scheme, not a single disabled person ever applied!”
Gould’s hearing was gradually deteriorating but her self-identification was ambivalent “I was going through a journey. I couldn’t say I was a disabled person, although I had a card from social services saying I was” she admits, and adds “I met Mandy Redvers-Rowe, who managed NWDAF at that time, and she gave me helpful advice on how to get some support, but I never identified as a disabled person.”
In March 1997 Gould attended an Arts Council seminar. It was to be the pivotal moment in her professional life.
Into the world of Disability Arts
“It was the first time I ever heard about the social model of disability” she says frankly.
At the seminar she met Chris Hammond, who took Gould’s details and invited her to apply for a job. Hammond, the Artistic Director of Full Circle Arts (FCA) persuaded Gould to apply for the post of Disability Arts Development Worker to which she was appointed in April 1997.
“Working with Chris Hammond was an amazing experience. FCA, as an organisation, really knew its stuff .. procedures, publicity material, documentation - it was all so professional” she enthuses. Gould commuted 100 miles a day, dropping her daughter off at school in Liverpool before driving down the M62 for Manchester. At FCA one of Gould's responsibilities was to work on the then pilot Mentoring scheme. She shadowed Chris Hammond as she conducted Disability Equality Training, eventually becoming FCA’s principal trainer, always emphasising the social model of disability.
“I’ve become a passionate speaker on these issues now, and I’m still training some ten years later” Gould states “It was just brilliant working with Chris.”
In December 1998 Gould had her third child, and in 1999 she decided to give up the long-distance commuting and was appointed Creative Industries Officer for Knowsley Metropolitan Council. “I was to be the bridge between the Economic Development and the Arts units within the borough. We had financial support from the European Regional Development Fund and my job was to locate creative businesses of all kinds …” she enthuses “I brought in major organisations such as ACID Fund and let the creative people in Knowsley Borough know what support was available to them.”
Within 18 months Gould had grown the database to 250 creatives “We had no idea that so much creative activity existed in Knowsley” said Council executives.
NWDAF - DaDaFest - destiny calls
Soon, however, Gould’s true destiny would call for her. She applied for the post of Creative Director for NWDAF and was appointed in February 2001. Founded in 1984 as AIM (Arts Integrated Merseyside) it had been part of the SHAPE network, and metamorphosed into the disabled-led NWDAF in 1990 under the directorship of actor, Mandy Colleran. Funded by Arts Council North West and the City of Liverpool it had, in the mid-1990s, forged a notable partnership with LIPA (Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts) to provide qualification courses in the field of disability arts. A key course was “Training the Trainers” for workshop leaders.
NWDAF has gone from strength to strength since Gould arrived. Its annual turnover has more than trebled in six years and now stands at £400,000 per annum. Significantly, its Arts Council funding is just £125,000 p.a. which mean that NWDAF has diversified and expanded its sources of income. This gives the organisation stability and a measure of independence, as well as pride, confidence and resilience. It is a role model for all disability arts agencies in Britain: how to be a successful disability arts agency and also be a viable growing business at the same time.
NWDAF has a simple effective tripartite structure: disability arts & arts projects, arts and learning, management and finance.
There are ten staff members of which four are full-time employees - a passionate and fully committed team.
DaDaFest and Beyond
DaDaFest is the most famous of NWDAF’s arts programmes and, like many genius projects, it came about by chance. In 2001 NWDAF was asked by the city to put something together for International Disabled Peoples’ Day on 3rd December to form part of Liverpool’s bid to be European Capital of Culture.
Gould felt a single day wouldn’t achieve much and pulled together a steering group which proposed a week-long festival in the city’s mainstream arts venues. The result was the birth of DaDaFest. In December 2001, comprising 59 separate events over 10 days which took place in theatres, museums, schools and community centres. It was ground-breaking and popular and gave the world such acts as the Nasty Girls who formed during NWDAF’s Disability Arts Cabaret Course organised with Liverpool Community College. It was also the debut of acclaimed stand-up, Laurence Clark.
In 2002 DaDaFest became bigger and better and was beginning to have a significant impact within Liverpool’s cultural scene. Its growth was like a whirlwind taking everyone by surprise. “Something really big was happening to us” says Gould “We had to re-think all its programming and revise all our strategies.”
Also in 2002, LIPA, due to a funding crisis, stopped its collaboration with NWDAF. Despite protestations to Paul McCartney (LIPA’s founder) the venture was beyond rescue and many disabled artists found their dreams of an arts education were demolished.
This setback, profound as it was, seemed to spur NWDAF to create more ventures. With support from the Children’s Fund, NWDAF developed and honed its arts in schools programme: organising eight projects a year, holding workshops outside the school curriculum. There were awards for achievements .
“We began to integrate our schools programme with DaDaFest - holding events and performances” says Gould with pride “we created the Young DaDaFest“.
has now become a brand.
In 2007 it had ten funders, held award ceremonies in the Crown Plaza Hotel and has accolades from the Mersey Tourism Board and ITV/Granada. It ran from 16 November to 19 December - Britain’s biggest festival of deaf and disability arts, attracting audiences and participation from across the country.
European Capital of Culture 2008
In 2003 Liverpool began its campaign to be European Capital of Culture, competing for this honour with eight British cities. Gould was energetic, and convinced the City of Liverpool that disability arts and culture should be an up-front integral part of the programme. She succeeded and was personally involved with preparing Liverpool’s case and participated in negotiations in London.
In June 2005 Liverpool was nominated as European Capital of Culture 2008. The city was ecstatic, but in the midst of such euphoria, Gould was thinking clearly and with vision. “Straight away, I telephoned and booked St George’s Hall for the first week of September 2008” she states “It was, at that time, Liverpool’s biggest venue and I wanted disability arts to be programmed there as part of Capital of Culture!”
During the past year NWDAF has worked with all the disability arts agencies in Britain, to forge a working group to jointly programme International DaDaFest to be held on 4-8 September 2008. It is intended to be a historic moment for deaf and disability arts. It will have a high profile and, hopefully, the world will be looking on.
The Future for Ruth Gould
“I still regret not completing my degree” she says ruefully “I have a sense of guilt about not having a university degree” Despite that Gould has not been bereft of further training. She has attended various leadership programmes. Gould has also been involved with a Liverpool network called Common Purpose which embraces a number of management learning tools, networking conferences, and the opportunity to scrutinize Liverpool Council members and its Chief Executive. This led to her gaining a place on Common Purpose’s 20:20 Course held in London with its focus on “influencing outside your sphere of influence.”
“One of the best things I’ve ever done … for me and for NWDAF” she states “It taught me how to position ourselves … it helped put me into the heart and hub of Liverpool, and led directly into our major role in Capital of Culture.”
“All this has put NWDAF up there as a high profile organisation” Gould says proudly, and adds on a personal note “After 35 years of hardly talking to anyone, my voice has been released through my involvement with disability arts - it has given me the identity I always needed.”
One wonders where the future might lie for Gould, whether the heady success of NWDAF and Capital of Culture will lead to fresh pastures. Her response is “I’m excited about what NWDAF is trying to achieve during this next year … I know what disability arts has done for me and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”