Disability, diversity and the institutional gatekeepers of the mainstream.

Ahead of next month’s Awkward Bastards II symposium at mac birmingham, New Art West Midlands’ Director Craig Ashley shares his thoughts in praise of awkwardness and on making a creative case for diversity for our region and beyond.

Anna Berndtson, Self Stress Relief (Performance, 2015). Image Hannah Levy.

On Thursday 12 March 2015 the eagerly anticipated Awkward Bastards symposium arrived at the Midlands Arts Centre (mac) in Birmingham. Commissioned by the Disability Arts organisation DASH to rethink ideas around diversity, the event took place in mac’s main theatre auditorium with accompanying exhibitions and performances happening across the busy public spaces and galleries of the arts centre. With contributions from artists, academics, curators and historians, the programme explored different perspectives on the current state of Disability Arts, and the wider subject of diversity in the mainstream.

In planning the symposium with my co-organiser and collaborator Mike Layward, Director at DASH, we set about foregrounding a conversation about what constitutes the mainstream, and how it is constituted in the realm of the arts and culture. We talked at length about the absence of Disability Arts from the institutionally-shaped canon of artistic movements, and the problems with defining oneself as a disabled artist – the perceived challenges such an association might present, and the possible barriers that may inadvertently be put in place.

At the same time I was developing a retrospective exhibition of the work of the Manchester-based artist Qasim Riza Shaheen, which showed at mac in the autumn of 2014.  The curatorial approach explored ‘awkwardness’ as an alternative critical framework in which to situate a body of work that had been largely classified and typecast as queer.  Awkwardness presented an opportunity to readdress the artist’s work without the baggage of a highly loaded term, and to consider it more in relation to an engagement with the audience – a difficult transaction or encounter within the mainstream, rather than a limited and unchallenging position outside of it.

Awkwardness therefore appealed as an alternative starting point for a symposium tasked with rethinking ideas around diversity.  This shift or transference of focus, from the difference or impairment of the artist to the audience and the passively observed conventions of the mainstream arts experience, was a critical point to locate in the debate.  The social quality of awkwardness seemed to us to be readily aligned with the social model of disability – a recognition that disability is an unhelpful construct of society, rather than an objective diagnosis of psychological, physical or sensory ability relative to the external world in which we live.  Extended to the wider territory of diversity in the arts, and appropriated as a social model for the purpose of this discussion, awkwardness provided the neutral ground upon which to begin a new conversation, one that reflected upon and scrutinised the societally-defined context of the arts environment, alongside the concerns of artists that were centred largely on identity, self-definition and classification.

We felt there was a question around legitimacy that also needed to be framed as part of the conversation, to acknowledge the historical context of exclusion and subsequent civil rights action in Britain during the post-war period.  In his appropriately provocative symposium title, Awkward Bastards, Mike Layward referenced legitimacy, or rather a perception that groups or individuals operating outside of the mainstream were considered in some way illegitimate, or otherwise implicated as bastards by the establishment.

Our public-facing arts organisations and agencies, acting as intermediaries between the artist and the audience, tend also to be the institutional gatekeepers, tastemakers and trendsetters with a significant and collective influence upon the mainstream.  Is it possible, we wondered, to dispel the perceived correlation between legitimacy and the mainstream, or is it necessary to continue to broaden the mainstream to include the last of the outsiders?

For those who had travelled to attend Awkward Bastards from across the UK, as well as the many viewers online who had tuned in to receive the live broadcast, there were perhaps no real surprises amongst the evidence and experiences presented throughout the day.  Speakers echoed time and again the widely-held view that there is still much work to be done in creating equitable opportunities around leadership and access in the arts, as indeed there is across society more generally.

However, despite the familiar and persisting challenges associated with diversity in the cultural industries, the overarching tone of the symposium was a hopeful one.  A shared sense of optimism accompanied the difficult conversations about representation and inclusion, and mainstream arts organisations were positively acknowledged on the whole for continuing their work in beginning to shift the institutional ground in relation to matters of gender, race, class and disability.  Slow though it may be, progress was happening and seen to be happening on a number of fronts.

Referred to frequently on the day was Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity, an initiative that speaks about the need for diversity in the mainstream.  The Creative Case, the shortened name by which it has become known, has located diversity as a strategic goal for each of the 684 arts organisations currently in receipt of regular funding – the National Portfolio Organisations and Major Partner Museums.  Between 2015 and 2018 diversity is firmly cited by Arts Council as ‘a key issue in relation to the programming and audiences, leadership and workforce of all our funded organisations.’[1]

In the introduction to her short presentation about her own personal history of diversity in the arts, connected to the Blk Art Group and the Black arts movement in the UK, the artist and curator Marlene Smith declared her belief in revolution and made the following provocation: ‘It is an open secret that our cultural infrastructure was founded upon and still rests on a tower of elitism. In the UK we cling for dear life to the old order, pay lip service to the notion of change and quake in our boots at the thought and consequences of revolution.’[2]

Whether the Creative Case will be effective in helping to bring about a revolution, and demolish the so-called ‘elitist tower’, remains to be seen.  Clearly it will take some time to measure the impact of the current endeavours in affecting change, and navigate the resistance that it will face.  Nevertheless, the determination of Arts Council and others to address diversity at a national and strategic level is surely a good thing.  From the artists and the artworks commissioned, to staff and the contractors employed, there appears now to be a concerted effort to move beyond a superficial addressing of diversity – a move away from the purely project-based model that would often see activity delivered by and for ‘diverse groups’ in isolation, to an earnest dialogue that recognises the value of a wider set of perspectives and cultural experiences as integral and mutually beneficial.

This is perhaps an overly optimistic note on which to end.  Events such as Awkward Bastards all too often conclude in a positive manner with groups of likeminded people agreeing cheerfully that the world is a slightly better place than it was at the beginning of the day.  As a sector and as a society, we do need to be watchful and vigilant, to be certain that progress continues to be made, but also to ensure that the intricacies and complexities of culture – not just its reductive facets and features – are acknowledged, respected and made visible.  The sentiment of the Japanese author and novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki resonates here. In his 1933 essay In Praise of ShadowsI [3], the reader is invited to consider the nuanced qualities between light and darkness, and to appreciate the subtleties within the shade.  While these passive observations allow us to monitor change from a distance, there is a need for activism and intervention too – and here the merits of awkwardness as a catalyst for change should be recognised and applauded. By taking a position of awkwardness, we are empowered to ask difficult questions, to challenge the legitimate ground where it is assumed or outmoded, and to propose alternative territories for the mainstream.

In Praise of Awkwardness is one of 3 essays featured in The Incorrigibles: Perspectives on Disability Visual Arts in the 20th and 21st Centuries, a new publication from DASH available to purchase here. DASH Director Mike Layward has served on the Advisory Group committee for New Art West Midlands since November 2016.

[1] Arts Council England. 2014. Creative Case for Diversity 2015-18. [Online]. [Accessed 2 June 2016]. Available from: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/

[2] Smith, M. 2015. Rethinking Diversity. [Online]. 12 March, mac (Midlands Arts Centre), Birmingham. Awkward Bastards symposium. DASH and mac. [Accessed 2 June 2016]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F-uw0yJPpc

[3] Tanizaki, J. 1933. In Praise of Shadows. London: Vintage Classics.