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Creative Minds asks how do we assess 'quality' arts practice next week in Brighton / 3 March 2014

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

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I am looking forward to the 'Creative Minds' conference coming up on 10th March in Brighton. Altogether 26 learning disability arts organisations have been working to create a series of conferences / events in various regions across the country.

Carousel have taken the lead on the Brighton event. There will be performances, art and talking from: Action Space London, Chris Pavia, choreographer with Stop Gap Dance Company, Corali Dance Company, Face Front Theatre Company, Oska Bright Film Festival and Rocket Artists.

Within these groups there are learning disabled artists whose work I'd really rate; individuals who've worked hard at developing their skills and honing their craft. Over the years I've seen the quality of performance and artwork by learning disabled artists improve, partly I think because the attitude of people facilitating the training has improved.

My lack-lustre introduction to the sector happened in the mid-1980s. I'd been on benefits for many years and had to go to a workshop run by Chicken Shed Theatre company as part of a government-run 'back to work' scheme. I was appalled by the patronising way the 'workers' talked to the people they were supposed to be working with. I walked out on the workshop, thinking 'these people might have learning disabilities, but they're not stupid.' It made me angry.

I've not been to see the work of Chicken Shed in recent decades. But back then the company clearly had an ethos where they thought the way of working with people was to tell them what to do. What counts for me, in terms of quality, is that the creative expression comes from artists themselves. I know from my own artistic endeavours that it takes confidence to think of yourself as an artist. And you can only get confidence through trying different things, making mistakes and taking on board advice about where you're not hitting the mark.

Looking through comments on the Creative Minds Forum, I can see how my thoughts on what makes for good Art are echoed by others who also believe that there is a pool of unique experience of the world to be tapped through encouraging and facilitating learning disabled people to become artists. 

For example Oska Bright Film Festival has been hugely successful because the decision-making is controlled by people with learning disabilities. As an audience we are offered a truly original glimpse into a way of seeing that is hidden from the mainstream world. 

There are two big questions as I see it. Firstly, how do you connect that notion of an 'aesthetic' or something that is original, to the notion of 'quality'? And secondly how do you go about telling artists with learning disabilities if you have an opinion on where the work falls down? You want to be encouraging, but equally you don't want to patronise people by telling them their work is great when you don't think that is the case.

There are lots of comments in the talking area of the Creative Minds website and I know Carousel are hoping more people will take part in the discussion, so if you have an opinion add your pennies worth at