Artist, a-n blogger and neurodiversity advocate Sonia Boué has called on disability arts organisations to better consider the needs of neurodivergent artists within their support and advice packages.

In a post published on her a-n blog ‘Autistic Arts Professionalism’, Boué critiques as ‘ableist’ a ‘how-to’ article that was recently published on the Shape Arts website.

Boué’s concern focuses on the language, tone and advice set out in the article ‘How to Get an Exhibition’, adapted from an original text by The White Pube and published by the disability-led arts organisation Shape Arts.

In particular, she picks up on a section that reads: “The art world is Social and I’m capitalising that because frankly you’re not getting anywhere making art in isolation. No-one is going to come knocking if no-one knows who you are. You have got to introduce yourself (and that won’t be welcome if you’re not a decent person), which brings me to…”

Boué’s own blog post titled ‘The art world is Social’ unpicks what she describes as neurotypical wording and assumptions layered within this statement. The article, which Shape Arts describe as being ‘adapted to suit disabled artists’, raises problematic questions for Boué, who sees this as representative of a wider concern that neurodivergent artists are invisible within much disability arts discourse.

Boué writes: “The art world is Social – with a capital S – is a statement which tells you everything you need to know about about an environment which is excluding, at times toxic and frankly (to borrow the author’s tone) disabling for autistic artists.

“There will of course be autistic artists out there making their work in isolation – that’s the point! It’s not necessarily a choice for us – though it is complicated.

“It may be that some of us are without a network because this is what happens when you have a social disability. Another factor is that ‘isolation’ can be enabling on a creative level. Some of us don’t find collaborative working accessible and need ‘isolation’ of a certain kind to make our work. This can be usefully reframed as solitude – though our need for it can be unusual and profound.”

Isolation and disablement

Isolation, writes Boué, may be a consequence of disablement. Often neurodivergent artists, she states, know all too well that they are isolated and that ‘no-one will come knocking’. It is a message that is unhelpfully reinforced, just as artists with social anxiety may not be best supported by being told that they should go out and network or introduce themselves.

It is the article’s assertion that artists need to be ‘a decent person’ that for Boué packs the biggest punch, having the potential to negatively impact on the self-image of neurodivergent artists, who may find it difficult – or simply not wish to – fit in with neurotypical social norms.

Writes Boué: “You have to unpack what this means and the assumptions buried within such a statement. ‘Decent person’ is here (I assume) someone who can perform neurological typicality (for want of a better phrase). A person who can show collaborative spirit and can demonstrate they are a team player. It means someone who can pass a neurotypical popularity test, which is essentially what most networking is about.

“Some of us can’t prove we’re ‘decent’ because the Social world disables us. So although it wasn’t intended that way, this is ableist and a worrying sign that autistic artists are still not visible in disability arts.”

Boué, who received a late diagnosis of autism in adulthood and is also dyscalculic and dyslexic, first began raising awareness of barriers to participation for neurodiverse artists in 2016, when she called for Arts Council England to review the user effectiveness of their Grantium funding application portal.

She has since consulted for Arts Council England and with its support developed a document outlining her needs in the workplace. Boué regularly blogs on neurodiversity and the arts.

Shape welcomes ‘constructive debate’

Describing Shape Arts’ approach to commissioning material for their website, Jeff Rowlings, head of programme, said: “We live in a paradox: art and artists continue to build communities, yet the art world itself can seem a remote edifice, aloof and inaccessible apart from to the few.

“Shape’s strategy for widening access to this world is, working with allies and partners, to assess the landscape, identify the barriers, then focus on solutions. Not all suggested routes through will work for everyone, so it’s important that artists have a range of tools and information at their disposal, to make the best informed career choices possible.”

Welcoming Boué’s critique, Rowlings said: “Constructive debate is an essential part of this, and we are glad to see this focus on the barriers around networking, formal or informal, to challenge mainstream expectations of connecting with and influencing others.

“We are keen to explore this area further, and welcome a diversity of opinions on this issue: the views of disabled artists and creatives are fundamental to how, why and when positive change will take place.”

1. Sonia Boué, Up the Portal

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