This week sees the return of Unlimited, the Southbank Centre’s festival celebrating the work of disabled artists. Originally part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012 and featuring theatre, dance, music, literature, comedy and visual arts, the event celebrates difference through a myriad of art forms.

Work is displayed in the Southbank Centre’s main theatre buildings, and visitors can expect everything from a sex-romp comedy and elaborate dinner party, to a family-friendly circus show.

“Unlimited is a real opportunity to gain critical mass and showcase the best of UK disability arts to a national and international audience,” says senior producer Jo Verrent. “It’s a chance to learn and to remind ourselves of both our similarities and our differences.”

This is particularly evident in the festival’s strong visual arts strand, with Juan delGado‘s video installation, The Flickering Darkness (Revisited), reflecting on the idea of belonging, and the need we all have for locating ourselves in an environment.

“Being awarded an Unlimited commission has been an excellent opportunity to further develop my career as an independent media artist,” says delGado. “I look forward to touring the work to other venues both in the UK and internationally in the next year.”

Fellow exhibitor Lea Cummings, whose intriguing drawings are produced in a meditative state, echoes this opinion. “Working with Unlimited has provided me with great opportunities to exhibit my work to a much wider audience and enabled me 
to develop new ideas,” he says. “Having the chance to meet other artists and professionals working in the art field has opened up many
 new contacts for the future.”

Greater reach and ambition

The Unlimited commissions, delivered by Shape and Artsadmin, form the core of the week-long festival, which contains a total of 22 productions and 54 performances by disabled artists around the world. These commissions are part of a three-year programme funded by Arts Council England, Creative Scotland and Spirit of 2012, with partners including the Southbank Centre, British Council, Disability Arts Online and DaDaFest.

Verrent comments: “Together we want to keep the momentum going, enabling greater reach and therefore the realisation of greater ambitions. We encourage the artists to stretch themselves. This might be about new processes or artforms but also where their work tours, including internationally.”

Unlimited’s work includes informing artists of the wider support available to them: “We are still coming across disabled artists who don’t know about the government’s Access to Work scheme. This provides funds for access costs for disabled people in work, including those who are self employed.”

Verrent also suggests that the legacy of the Cultural Olympiad is not quite what it should be. “We appeared to be on the way after 2012 but the current economic situation has scuppered the momentum. We are seeing a squeeze with benefit cuts, the closure of the Independent Living Fund and the restrictions that are being imposed on some artists through reductions in their Access to Work support.”

What then does the future hold for Unlimited? “My long term ambitions are for a cultural sector where Unlimited is unnecessary,” says Verrent. “However, until the arts sector stops seeing access and inclusion as an add-on, only to be part of the picture when budgets allow, Unlimited will be needed.”

Unlimited festival, Southbank Centre, London, 2-7 September 2014. 

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Unlimited: looking for allies to promote great work by disabled artists – Unlimited’s Jo Verrent on developing a longterm legacy