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In search of a level access playing field / 27 June 2011

Portrait of a figure looking at an artwork depicting the back of a woman

Ju Gosling aka ju90's Perception I-IV (detail) at the Bluecoat Gallery in November 2010

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As disabled artists, we know that our work is as good as anyone else’s. Indeed, since our lives force us into a more intense relationship with society and the environment, as well as developing our observation, precision and problem-solving skills, you could argue that it’s better.

History will also ensure that the international Disability Arts movement is recorded and recognised alongside the rest. We already have an impressive record of exhibitions, festivals and publications, along with a coherent body of theory and tradition. Melvyn Bragg has rightly described us as the ‘last avant garde’.

When it comes to competing for work, though, we are often left out of the running. I have lost count of the times that I have asked why a visual arts opportunity has not been advertised, only to be told that, in an “Arts Council-approved and established process”, application has been by invitation only. (Did you see the Cultural Olympiad poster commission advertised? Nope, me neither.)

Just who is going to invite us? Quite apart from viewing us, and therefore our work, as second-class because we’re disabled, a whole range of barriers deny us networking opportunities. These range from lack of support to leave our homes, to lack of accessible public transport, to lack of Blue Badge parking, to inaccessible arts venues, to lack of Sign Language Interpreters to facilitate communication, to printed materials which are impossible for us to read – and many more.

At least the Arts Council is funding events like Decibel for performing artists, but no such opportunities exist for visual artists. It is all very well for the Arts Council to want to ‘mainstream’ us and for the Government to want us to work until we are 66, but how can we in the current circumstances?

And with the closure of dedicated funds for disabled artists, how can we even maintain our CVs? We are not asking for ‘special’ treatment, but all the statistics show that we are currently being denied anything like our rightful share of arts funding, along with the right to compete alongside everyone else.

Even when opportunities are advertised, there are often unnecessary – and illegal – barriers to applying. I was all set to apply for the Matchmakers commission in Hackney last week, only to discover at the last minute that it was by post only. And I only have access to the post office once a fortnight …

Yet the Government have just announced the closure of the Equality and Human Rights Commission helpline, as well as the withdrawal of all Legal Aid from discrimination cases. In the past, we were able to challenge ‘established’ processes and procedures for being discriminatory, but what are we to do now?

When it comes to being a woman artist, there’s a double bind. Women still make up less than 3% of all exhibited artists internationally, while Tracey Emin has reported that the work of male YBAs sells for five times the women’s. (Not that many disabled artists would object to selling their work for the price of Tracey’s or Cornelia Parker’s.)

I was delighted when, in 2010, the DaDaFest visual arts exhibition at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool was listed in the official Liverpool Biennial programme. That was, until I read the listings online and realized that only the male artists from the group show had been included in the programme. Officially, we all took part in DaDaFest, but Tanya Raabe and I were absent from the Biennial.

Fancy smashing a glass ceiling, anyone?

Keywords: cuts to services,disability art