Infinite Melody, Still, Edie Jo Murray.

Infinite Melody, Still, Edie Jo Murray.

The AD:Vantage Leadership Programme is a development programme with a focus on d/Deaf, disabled or neurodivergent people who work in arts, culture or heritage in Coventry. A pilot project funded by Coventry City Council, it has been running since September 2020. The programme has consisted of group learning sessions, workshops, ‘How I Did It’ insights with industry experts, 1-2-1 support and mentoring from a chosen industry specialist. It is based on the producers’ two previous programmes RE:Present and ASTONish which worked to support diversity in all its forms including race, disability, gender and sexuality. The programme has also featured a series of Masterclasses open to the public with speakers including, Andrew Miller MBE, Kris Halpin and Shawanda Corbett and which can be viewed here. 

We caught up with the cohort (artists Ayesha Jones, Jazz Moreton, Helen Kilby Nelson, Hayley Williams-Hindle and Edie Jo Murray) about the experience:

What made you want to apply to the AD:Vantage programme? 

Ayesha Jones: Because I had been struggling with the formal aspects of working within the arts e.g. writing applications, leading meetings at work, organising my workload, understanding what I needed to do and how to execute what needed to do.

Jazz Moreton: I felt a bit lost in a massive art world. Several people recommended that I apply, so I took their advice.

Helen Kilby Nelson: The programme was timely in relation to recent developments in my practice, and I recognised that the opportunity to learn and develop leadership skills would be invaluable to equip me with the tools to ensure I have a sustainable practice.

Hayley Williams-Hindle: It was a timely opportunity, and it came on the back of having had other leadership training in recent years that was aimed at a broader demographic. I felt that I could gain a lot from a training programme like AD:Vantage, that promised to be tailored and mindful of the particular challenges and cultural communication differences that ‘neurodiverse’ and disabled artists live with. There was some trepidation, but also excitement at being part of a pilot project, a new model of nuanced and culturally empathic working practice.

Edie Jo Murray: I was most excited to be connected with other creatives in Coventry. It really helps to have a good network of other artists around you, and sometimes it can be hard to make those connections, especially if you’re not able to attend events in person. I’ve been really grateful for the relationships I’ve made through AD:Vantage.

Motherland, Ayesha Jones.


What has been your biggest take away from the programme?

Ayesha Jones: I think the most useful thing about this process is being exposed to information which helps us understand the structure we are operating in (the arts) and then how we function within that to make it work for us and our goals. The analysing of my past, present and future has helped carve a clearer path and given more meaning to why I am doing what I am doing, rather than just going through the motions. That self awareness and understanding of surroundings naturally facilitates self confidence and clarity.

In order to reach higher positions you need to be exposed to the right information in order to understand how to get there or how to operate when opportunities come your way. As someone who processes information better visually, it was great to have visual tasks and presentations to help absorb the information that was being given.

Jazz Moreton: How important it is to have a good network!

Helen Kilby Nelson: It helped me learn new skills and recognise the skills I already had, and how to use them to their full advantage. My biggest takeaway is valuing myself, time and skills! 

Hayley Williams-Hindle: The reminder that growth and development is a process, and that that is ok!  The take-away for me, apart from all the specific industry nuggets, is a measure of renewed hope – That understanding and integration of ideas and concepts can happen organically when a person centred approach to development is used. I hardly think it’s just my experience, but very often when new material is presented in typical format and settings, there is little consideration given to how that information is absorbed and how it will be integrated and become practical knowledge for the learners, beyond the basics of offering instrumental tools like larger font size or dimmed room lights. For many people, it is the more thoughtful and nuanced work of contextualising and describing that makes information truly useful. I think of it as demonstrating the world building of the ‘insider’. Programmes like this serve to expand hope that true accessibility is possible where there is a will to work out what that means for each person.

Edie Jo Murray: That the biggest challenges for me are different to what I thought they were! This programme fully made me completely reassess who I am and what I want to achieve, and what things I need to work on – in a good way. It’s definitely helped me to (re)define the direction I want to take next.

Pilot I apostrophe. Still003, Helen Kilby Nelson.


How have you/have you collaborated with others on the programme outside the sessions?

Ayesha Jones: I have been speaking with Hayley about how I can support her and her work through my role at the Belgrade Theatre. I also emailed the group for their feedback on an idea I had for work.

Jazz Moreton: Not with my creative practitioner hat on, but we all keep in touch and share advice and support.

Helen Kilby Nelson: Collaboration has mainly been in the form of peer support at the moment. However, there are many crossovers with our practices, and I don’t doubt there are many potential future collaborative opportunities.

Hayley Williams-Hindle: Greater collaboration has been stymied somewhat in our group by being obliged to meet on Zoom rather than in person…We’ve spent a lot of hours in each others’ virtual company over the last few months, but most of us haven’t even met in the flesh yet! Having said that, it’s been wonderful to have consistent time with a small group of brilliant and thoughtful people, and learn about each others’ areas of interest and exploration… There are some collaboration ideas with the different members of the group that I hope will be realised over the next period of time.

Edie Jo Murray: We have talked a lot about what we might do together after the programme – it’s been great to find out the interests we have in common, and how we might be able to support each other’s practices. Keep a look out for an AD:vantage podcast or something similar coming soon I’m sure!

Fascial exploration 4, Hayley Williams-Hindle.


Who have you been mentored by in industry? How have you found that experience?

Ayesha Jones: Lara Ratnaraja, Nicola Shipley as well as artist and photographer Andrew Jackson. It really has helped to give me and my personal practice more direction. and helped spark new ideas. They are helping me finally put in for my first ever solo funding applications.

Jazz Moreton: So far, I’ve had mentoring from Independent Consultant & Curator Mandy Fowler, and I’m also having some with TV Producer and Director Shirley Hunt-Benson because I wanted to split my mentoring across two sectors: Art and Media.

Helen Kilby Nelson: As well as one-to-one’s with Lara, I have also had mentoring from Ruth Catlow at Furtherfield and Mandy Fowler. It was really beneficial to be able to spend time with industry professionals who are outside of my existing network. They have all helped me re-frame how I think and talk about my practice and current projects.

Hayley Williams-Hindle: I was paired with Sonia Boué. I don’t have enough superlatives for this person! Her nuanced empathic support and guidance has been transformative. It’s the first time I’ve had mentoring from someone who also recognises their own neurodivergence. So there is a shorthand there for me – an ease of communication. The usual translation and filtering effort isn’t necessary, and that’s been really enabling and a lot less effortful. Added to which Sonia is a wonderful artist in her own right, and is knowledgeable and experienced in many of the practical aspects of things like funding within the sector – which is still quite new to me. I wish I could keep her on full time! A mentoring relationship, when you find a good fit, is I think one of the most valuable things that anyone can have in their career and development of self.

Edie Jo Murray: I’ve been mentored by Ruth McCullough, Director of Abandon Normal Devices. It’s been great to get her input – particularly as she has really motivated me to pursue a project that I’m really excited about, but kept being pushed to the bottom of the list by other work. Throughout the programme we’ve been able to learn from the experience of loads of interesting industry professionals which has been a real privilege.

Jazz Moreton


It’s an exciting year for Coventry/Warwickshire. What next? What are your plans for the coming year?

Ayesha Jones: I was shortlisted for Unlimited’s next funding round and if I am successful, I will be producing new work on the theme of black female identity and the connection between art and spirituality.

Jazz Moreton: I’ve just completed a BBC New Creatives radio commission (coming to an airwave near you in the spring), and I plan to progress in sound/radio/podcasting/media, which feels far more accessible than it did before I did the AD:vantage course due to Lara’s links with the BBC and her curating Hello Culture.

Helen Kilby Nelson: I will be mainly working on developing new bodies of work,  ‘I Apostrophe S’ and ‘Qwerty’(working title). Funding for the R&D of Qwerty will enable me to be mentored by Ruth Catlow at Furtherfield and artists Doug Fishbone, Antonio Roberts and Simon Poulter. I will also continue to work with the community of Stratford-upon-Avon through to 2022. This is a community initiative to strengthen and develop community connections through creative opportunities and skill sharing for all residents.

Hayley Williams-Hindle: I’ve got a book full of ideas and a brainful more! I have a small CCC/Unlimited commission on ‘Fidgeting over zoom’ which is due to be shown in January as part of the Unlimited Southbank Festival online – which is really exciting. I’m new to public making and am chomping at the bit to see how my ideas land and resonate with others! So plans for this year are to keep having conversations and exploring ideas in this newly open-to-me world of creative opportunity. I’m experimenting at the moment with acrylic and light, and the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality in data visualisation art. I’m hoping to be able to realise a piece this year which is working with additive colour theory to describe a conceptual ‘portrait of a brain’ of an individual using their cognitive skills profile. It will take the form of a chandelier, and is a commemorative and reflective piece to a wonderful neurodivergent woman whose life ended prematurely at the start of 2020. It’s also an iteration of a larger project in development which is using VR to interrogate and celebrate the so-called ‘spikey’ cognitive profile of neurodiversity; challenging the narrative of difference as deficit and visualising the possibilities of complementary skills within groups of people.

The other aspect of my current interest is in somatics – working practically and artistically with embodied memory and place. I hope that 2021 will provide an opportunity to develop some work about the inward biology of the soma, exploring the metaphor of theatre as organism and how this year of pandemic restriction has harmed and stiffened the ‘cultural’ body. I’m further formalising my coaching work too and hope to be in a position to use those skills alongside body work to offer practical support to people who are struggling especially with the particular mental challenges of this crazy year! There’s also some research work in development with Bath University around autism and the cultural sector. So, lots of threads of ‘possible’. I aim to keep lightly pulling on all of those threads, and really hope to be caught right up in the glorious tangle of what Coventry is realising for its year as City of Culture.

Edie Jo Murray: I’ve got loads planned, but unfortunately lots that hasn’t been announced yet so I can’t share too much! Some exciting regional commissions that I’m looking forward to working on, and a personal project that’s still in really early stages – but I hope to start sharing soon!


AD:Vantage has been produced by Helga Henry and Lara Ratnaraja, independent arts consultants who have a particular interest in developing diverse leadership talent in the arts, culture and heritage sectors. AD:Vantage is their third programme in the region designed to transform the diversity of cultural leadership. Their piece on diversity in the arts for New Art West Midlands from October 2017 can be read here. 

AD:Vantage has been funded by Coventry City Council and has worked in partnership with New Art West Midlands, Coventry Biennial and Warwick University. The Advisory Group consisted of Sonia Boué; Mojere Ajayi-Egunjobi; Philippa Cross, Talking Birds; Kim Hackleman, The Belgrade; Becki Morris, Disability Collaborative Network C.I.C and Craig Ashley New Art West Midlands/Coventry University

The AD:Vantage Leadership Programme is a development programme with a focus on d/Deaf, disabled or neurodivergent people who work in arts, culture or heritage in Coventry. A pilot project funded by Coventry City Council, it has been running since September 2020. We caught up with the cohort about the experience.

We are delighted to be partnering on the AD:Vantage Leadership Programme, a development opportunity for Coventry-based d/Deaf, disabled or neurodivergent people who work in arts, culture or heritage. Deadline: 12 noon, Monday 17 August 2020.

Image copyright Inès Elsa Dalal

This evaluation report was commissioned by Lara Ratnaraja and Helga Henry as part of the ASTONish programme. ASTONish focused on transforming cultural leadership by selecting creative entrepreneurs and artists both living in Aston and Newtown and those in the wider city who wish to engage with the area culturally.

Image copyright Inès Elsa Dalal

“Cultural identities come from somewhere. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power.”*

Image copyright Inès Elsa Dalal

The narrative on diversity in the cultural sector is a well heard one: under-representation, social mobility, exclusion, ethnicity, gender, disability, class, sexuality; all have come under the microscope recently in the laudable aim of a far more diverse arts workforce that represents and engages with a far more diverse audience that is representative of the world we live in. The subsidised arts sector is more aware than ever of the relationship between the public money it receives and the relatively narrow segment of the public who traditionally partake of their activities.

This means the cultural sector is led by cultural leaders who do not on the whole represent the audiences who wish to engage with culture. A lack of visible diverse leadership has a direct correlation with a lack of cultural participation by diverse communities. As the 2013 Consilium Report for Arts Council England states “It is also vital that the arts and cultural workforce becomes more representative of the society it serves. In particular, we need to do more to ensure that entry routes into employment, and opportunities for people to further their careers, are fairer and more accessible to all. This is as true for the leadership and governance of the sector as it is for those entering the workforce”.

Recently, through our work on programmes such as RE:Present and ASTONish – both schemes aimed at transforming the diversity of cultural leadership in Birmingham (and Aston and Newtown respectively), we (Lara Ratnaraja and Birmingham Hippodrome) have been committed to developing and nurturing diverse cultural leaders. We have noticed while delivering these programmes that the barriers we and they face is a slow-moving sector that has yet to embrace diversity as a creative opportunity and move beyond the permissions culture that is endemic in the arts.

The use of language in culture continues to exclude and “tag”: ‘diverse’, ‘marginalised’, ‘disadvantaged’ ‘hard to reach’ are words used to seek inclusion but also by default achieve exclusion. The language we have heard around programmes such as RE:Present and ASTONish has othered participants; the words “them” and “they” are used liberally, as is the implication that artists of colour are in some way “less,” (less relevant, lower quality or amateur) only relevant for community engagement contexts whereby the quality of creative work is in some way of less of value than it would be in main stream programming.

But with workforce data showing little change, it is evident that whilst policies such as Arts Council’s Creative Case, Race Equality Action plans and initiatives such as Changemakers and Evolve are making incremental changes, within the sector itself there is little change or perceived inclination to self-examine why the arts sector is so unrepresentative.

From data submitted by National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) and Major Partner Museums (MPM) in 2015/16, 17% of the NPO workforce is Black and minority ethnic and 7% of MPMs (against the working age population average of 15 %). However, at senior levels just 8% of Chief Executives, 10% of Artistic Directors and 9% of Chairs of Boards are BME (Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case 2015-2016, Arts Council England, 2016) Birmingham, is under-served in terms of support for next stage leadership development in an area where 42% of the population self-identifies as non-white. The leadership of cultural organisations doesn’t reflect its audiences and this is reflected across the West Midlands.

As a result of this, in 2016, supported by Birmingham City Council and Arts Council England we ran RE:Present, a pilot initiative which was aimed at cultural leaders/producers and artist/leaders from diverse backgrounds who are currently under-represented in Birmingham and the wider Midlands region. This led to a network of over 40 artists, curators and producers who continue to reach new achievements, create new collaborations but also crucially are transforming the way cultural leadership is evolving in the city. From this we developed ASTONish. ASTONish is a programme of cultural leadership and creative entrepreneur training and development aimed at emergent and established artists, musicians and creative entrepreneurs in Aston and Newtown who have the ambition and potential to transform both themselves and the sector.

The regional art frameworks that seek to promote diversity are interventionist and generate from a cultural model of production that emanates from the centre. The arts in general uses distribution models that are based on an invitation “in”; a permission to view culture on their terms as regards location, timing and context. These frameworks don’t allow for a reframing of cultural identities and willfully ignore the “continuous play of history, culture and power.” In doing so they continue to disseminate a cultural picture that can be irrelevant or even hostile to diverse audiences.

Mark Sealy MBE, Director of Autograph, speaking at ASTONish event. Image copyright Inès Elsa Dalal

The othering of artists of colour means their practice is labelled as marginalised. It is either ignored, or presented as coming from outside the frameworks of culture that stem from white, hetero-normative patriarchal constructs. It is exoticised, or used instrumentally to engage with audiences of colour, (Bhangra and samosa nights for Asian people and spoken word, Windrush reminiscences and Hip Hop for African-Caribbean people). The medium might change but the song remains the same.

Inclusion narratives on diversity allow artists of colour in, giving them permission to participate. As well as doing artists of colour a disservice, this only perpetuates a huge cultural divide which alienates and divorces the arts from the socio-political transformations that are affecting society at large. Equally it muffles instead of amplifing a plurality of artistic voices to wider audiences.

But ignoring these voices isn’t silencing them. Artists of colour are creating new dialogues and communities and modes of practice. They are reframing their cultural identities on their terms and refusing to adhere to the colonial identities ascribed to them.

The time is now to co-create a new narrative on diversity and cultural creation and engagement. This narrative destroys the traditional permission and invitation-based inclusion model and provides a new cultural and creative dialogue which is based on collaboration, equality of discourse and equity of diverse cultural value to allow for a fluidity and intersectional cultural ecology.

“…identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”*

Let’s change the song: instead of singing it “at” people, “reaching out” and “doing” singing to people, let’s listen for the songs we all carry with us, and figure out a way to make that music anew.

*HALL, STUART. (1990). Cultural Identity and Diaspora. Identity: Community, culture, difference. 2.

Lara Ratnaraja Cultural Consultant @lararatnaraja Helga Henry, Director of Organisational Development Birmingham Hippodrome @helgahenry Co-Producers ASTONish

Lara Ratnaraja and Helga Henry give their opinions on the narrative surrounding diversity in the cultural sector.