“We want to give the best offer to disabled and deaf people to participate in all the programme, and support the artists and creatives who take part in the festival. It has been very hard to fundraise effectively and I am having to make last minute cuts and changes to make sure the support is in place at every level.”
DaDaFest artistic director Ruth Gould is discussing the role of the Liverpool disability and deaf arts festival in the current funding climate, prior to the event’s opening this weekend. Now celebrating its 12th edition – and 30 years of the body that founded it – these are challenging times for the organisation. “We see our work as critical in raising standards about access,” explains Gould, “but it is getting to be a delicate balancing act, which affects the size of the programme.”
One of the festival’s main events is the The Art of the Lived Experiment exhibition at the Bluecoat, curated by Aaron Williamson. Containing nine new commissions – including Tony Heaton’s Gold Lamé, a shiny gold invalid car suspended in the gallery – and six reworkings of earlier pieces adapted especially for the exhibition, the show features 28 disabled and non-disabled artists from the UK and abroad.
Taking in sculpture, film, performance, painting and installation, the exhibition addresses the idea that life, like art, is in a perpetual state of flux and uncertainty. In doing so, it posits a number of questions: How can imagination and experiment affect the lived experience? How can art challenge the representations of disabled people in society? Can creativity help build a global identity for the disabled?
Public spending cuts
While the work itself is the main focus of the festival, the issues surrounding disability arts are never far away – and recent cuts in public spending, explains Gould, have hit particularly hard.
“The impact is growing as there are fewer resources to put into access support, such as sign language and audio described performances, and a lack of funding to ensure exhibitions are supported – they are now tending to be one-off rather than standard.
“Also, artists are being affected by cuts to Access to Work support, so I feel there is a real danger of things going backwards rather than progressing as they should. While DaDaFest is all about celebrating the talents and achievement of its artists, the organisation continues to actively highlight the need for social inclusion and justice.”
One such mechanism for championing the value and representation of disabled artists, both professionally and culturally, is a brand new ‘thinking and ideas’ strand, which includes the inaugural DaDaFest International Congress on Disability Culture and Human Rights in December. Aimed at publicly encouraging discourse around art’s capacity to empower disabled people, among the many speakers are Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England; Jo Verrent, senior producer at Unlimited; and performance artist Rachel Gadsden.
So what does Gould think other arts organisations can be doing better with regards to equality and diversity? “Programme more diversity in work,” she says. “Whether visual arts or performance, ensure that a balance is achieved through being creative and not safe.”
Gould also talks of the need to prioritise access support rather than viewing it as an add-on, and stresses the importance of employing qualified workers rather than well-meaning volunteers with, for example, some basic sign language skills.
“There are many ways to change people’s minds, and art is perhaps the most potent,” Gould concludes. “It taps into the imagination and has the power to take us out of our usual ways of thinking, towards new understandings and perceptions.”
DaDaFest International 2014 takes place from 8 November 2014 – 11 January 2015 dadafest.co.uk