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Jo Caird: It's Time to Talk about Disability Arts

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Last week’s Arts Council England funding announcement meant good news for some arts organisations and bad news for others. It would be premature to attempt to draw too many conclusions from last week’s news – the full effects of the cuts and boosts will become apparent over the coming months and years – but ACE’s announcement does present us with a valuable opportunity to consider the state of subsidised performing arts, and in particular those sectors that receive little media attention the rest of the time, such as disabled-led theatre and dance.

First, the good news. Several disabled-led companies will see their funding boosted significantly from 2012/13, including Deafinitely Theatre (up 22.3%*), StopGAP Dance Company (up 71%), Kazzum (up 29.4%), Vital Xposure (up 51.8%) and Mind the Gap (up 26.5%). For the companies in this position (I talked to representatives of Deafinitely, StopGAP and Kazzum), these increases mean being able to continue creating high-quality professional work with deaf and disabled artists, nurturing the next generation of performers and arts administrators, and taking their work to wider audiences via more ambitious touring programmes.

Of course, there have also been cuts to the sector, including an 100% cut to the disabled-led company, Zinc Arts, which will not have its funding renewed next year. Many disability arts organisations and organisations that work to increase accessibility to the arts will see real term cuts of around 10% over the next funding period, including Graeae Theatre Company (-9.4%), DV8 (-11.8%), Extant (-7.4%), Heart N Soul (-11%), Stage Text (-11%) and VocalEyes (-11%).

Because everyone has been preparing for the worst since the announcement in October’s spending review that ACE would face an overall cut of 30%, the overwhelming mood among those I’ve spoken has been relief. But in the wake of the 6.9% cut already sustained by all the Regularly Funded Organisations for this coming year, these companies will now be taking a serious look at where they can scale back and save money.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for trimming the fat and creating more streamlined and efficient organisations, but the disability arts sector is so small (of the 2009/10 regularly funded portfolio only eight of 818 organisations were disabled-led, and only 47 organisations directed over 50% of their programming towards disability-focused projects) that there’s a real danger of doing irreparable damage to a vulnerable arts eco-system by stifling growth now.

The organisations I’ve been talking to have all remarked upon how well supported they’ve felt by the Arts Council in recent years, even if some of them have been disappointed by their funding situations in the past. This is great news and seems to signify that ACE is serious in its commitment to the disability arts sector, but companies cannot survive on support alone.

Deafinitely Theatre’s executive director, Mark Sands, is delighted that his organisation will be able to grow its work over the coming funding period, but has serious concerns about some of the less obvious effects of cuts on the sector as a whole. When companies are forced to fold or downsize their operations, there is a knock-on effect on surviving organisations as artists and administrators have fewer opportunities to gain experience in different roles across the sector. This takes its toll on the bottom rungs of the ladder too with young people suffering as organisations become less inclined to take on work experience placements.

Another hidden effect of the cuts, as expressed by Tabitha Allum, executive director of Stagetext, a charity that provides captioning to increase access to live performance for deaf and hard of hearing people, is that “producing theatres and companies who have also had a cut or standstill funding will think that access provisions are an easy thing to slice off their budgets”.

Judy Dixey, executive director of VocalEyes, is similarly concerned that ACE and other funding bodies may not be taking access into consideration when it comes to awarding grants to organisations. And in a worrying development that extends to disabled people at work in the arts and beyond, it seems that officers at Access to Work, the government agency which helps pay the additional costs that arise because of disabled employees’ needs, are “questioning support costs in ways that they have never done in the past”. This from Judith Kilvington, executive director at Graeae.

These concerns aside, the mood in the disability arts sector is quietly optimistic: cuts have been made and funding has been frozen, but administrators feel that for the moment they are able to continue building on the progress of previous years to give deaf and disabled artists and audiences the opportunities that have been denied them for too long. Let's hope they're right.

* all percentages in real terms based on inflation predictions


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