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Disability arts: Has funding dried up since the Paralympics?

Emma Tracey Emma Tracey | 15:55 UK time, Thursday, 31 January 2013

A scene from Graeae Theatre's Reasons to be Cheerful

2012 was a big year for disability art, thanks to a Paralympics project, Unlimited, which brought an unprecedented amount of money to the sector. But arts funding is being slashed in many areas and the intense media focus on disability has gone, so how will disabled artists support themselves in 2013?

Testing the temperature in January, we find disabled artists facing an uncertain financial future.

Colin Hambrook edits Disability Arts Online, DAO, a well-known online forum and journal for disabled artists in the UK. Speaking of the Paralympic arts festival, he said: "Unlimited gave a real sense of value to the work of disabled artists in a whole broad range of contexts."

Not everyone was part of the 2012 festival, however. "The few individuals who got those commissions", he continues, "will now be very well networked and set-up to evolve what they do. But for those who didn't get those commissions, those who are outside the box, it is going to get much harder."

Last year, work started to dry up for disabled artists who had been employed consistently for ten to 15 years.

Hambrook says this is because there is now "very little public art being commissioned" and many artists working in schools "have seen their programmes closed down" due to loss of funds. Community art work of this nature has been mostly funded by local councils whose arts budgets were "slashed" last year, he says, adding: "Most of the UK's disability arts organisations have had to close for financial reasons in the past 10 years too, making it difficult for new people to "join the fold".

Arts funding in the UK comes from a number of different sources, including local authorities, regional development agencies and charitable trusts. But the biggest pots of money dedicated to the arts in the UK are held by Arts Council England, The Arts Council of Wales and The Arts Council of Northern Ireland, whose budgets have been recently cut. Scotland's equivalent arts body, Creative Scotland, has been told to "do more" with their funding, which has so far been protected.

Government funding to Arts Council England, ACE, is set to fall by 11.5 million by 2015. This follows on from a near 30 percent drop in funding announced in 2010.

The cuts have affected individual artists like Lincoln-based Amie Slavin, who was unsuccessful in her bid last year for funding by the Unlimited programme. Eventually, her piece Sound Spiral was supported by the arts council.

Slavin, who is blind, says she has "huge concerns" about budget cuts to the body she describes as "essential, not just as a funder but as a network and a giver of advice".

She's worried that cutbacks will lead to fewer opportunities to discuss project proposals with an advisor at the funding application stage.

"My relationship manager, my main point of contact, is being made redundant," she says. "I'll have to work with a new person who will cover a bigger geographical area and will not have years of experience with my practice."

An additional benefit is that they have funded Slavin's access needs as well as her art work.

In 2011, Arts Council England gave a boost to 695 established art groups by guaranteeing funding for core projects until 2015. These groups are known as NPOs, National Portfolio Organisations. In short, it means they don't have to apply for funding for each new project.

Nine NPOs, one percent of the total, are disability-led according to their definition. A further 44 NPOs, six percent, have told ACE that half or more of their programmes are disability focused.

All portfolio organisations have been recently encouraged to start conversations about disability and are now required to develop a diversity action plan. Hambrook thinks this is positive and reasons that the Arts Council want to move away from what he calls the "tick box culture" which has focused more on quotas than art from different backgrounds.

"They are trying to nurture an appreciation for how valuable diversity is in terms of innovation and creativity," he says, and hopes this may include more disabled voices.

The much respected disability-led theatre company Graeae (pronounced "grey eye") is one of the aforementioned NPOs.

2012 was a phenomenal year for them. Deaf CEO Jenny Sealey was co-artistic director of the Paralympic opening ceremony, and their Ian Dury musical, Reasons to be Cheerful, was performed at the Southbank Centre during the Unlimited festival and toured the UK receiving great plaudits.

Though Graeae is confident of gaining funding from a number of different avenues, Jenny says that 2013 is not a year for complacency.

"It is vital that our work carries on with even more drive and determination as there is a real danger, in light of possible cuts to benefits and the arts, that deaf and disabled artists and audiences will once again be relegated to the sidelines and forgotten. However Graeae had a phenomenal year in 2012 and we will continue to work with the government, funding bodies, trusts and foundations to make sure deaf and disabled artists take centre stage in 2013 and beyond."

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