Unlimited – UK
Looking back at the partnership between Unlimited and the British Council – a joint venture that brought disability arts to a global stage.
At the heart of the British Council’s work in disability arts is our partnership with Unlimited. Beginning in 2008 in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games and Cultural Olympiad’s, we made a commitment as partners to do for disabled artists what the Paralympics has done for disabled athletes.
The partnership between Unlimited and the British Council emerged within the context of a long history of arts-led activism in the United Kingdom (UK). The Disability Arts Movement in the late 1970s brought together disability activists, artists and creatives of all kinds who campaigned for the civil rights of disabled people and fought against their marginalisation in the arts and culture. The influence of this movement led to the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK in 1995, which banned discrimination of disabled people in connection with employment, the provision of goods, facilities and services. It was replaced in 2010 with the Equality Act.
The inspiration provided by these artists manifests itself in the opportunities afforded to disability artists in the UK today. Unlimited’s contribution to the Paralympics’ Cultural Olympiad resulted in 29 new commissions by disabled artists from across the UK and five international collaborations with artists from Brazil, China, Croatia, Germany, Japan, and South Africa.
Delivered by disability-led Shape Arts and arts-production hub Artsadmin, Unlimited has subsequently developed into the world’s largest commissioning programme for disability arts and remains a major partner for our work.
Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited and member of the defining Disability Arts Movement, reflected on Unlimited and its impact on disability arts:
“All sounds great, doesn’t it? And in the most part it is. However, what’s important is to look at why initiatives such as Unlimited exist, not just what they do.”
Unlimited exists because disabled artists experience multiple and systemic barriers to developing arts skills, gaining funding, negotiating the arts sector, and platforming their work. This is not due to a lack of talent, vision, skill or resilience. This is due to entrenched ableism within the cultural sector – and all sectors of society. It’s due to historic systems excluding rather than reimagining. Access and inclusion are not seen as a priority despite the fact that disabled people make up 15% – 25% of our global population, according to some definitions of disability. Together we aim to change perceptions of disabled people both in the UK and internationally with ground-breaking and high-quality art. Indeed, “Unlimited funds exceptional work.” It supports disability arts and enables it “to cut through the barriers – to become ‘must see’ rather than ‘should see’ and therefore change the perception of disabled artists from one of pity or discomfort to a more rounded one – we are just part of humanity. People often assume there is one type of disabled artist producing one type of work, but artists are artists, and the variety is infinite – of both artform and approach.”
Many of Unlimited commissions have gone on to tour internationally with the British Council’s support, bringing boundary-defying work to new contexts, challenging audiences world-wide, and raising the profile of disabled artists. Cultural leaders across the globe are inspired by Unlimited as a funding model that has the capacity to lead social impact.
Verrent reflects on the reach of their collaborations: “Unlimited [projects] and artists have worked [across] the Americas frequently such as [with] VIVA Carnival developed with Brazil,, Touretteshero, which toured through the USA and Canada, Raquel Meseaguer adapting work with Mexico, and Richard Butchins showing work in Argentina .”
There are many facets to our partnership. British Council Arts specialists sit on Unlimited’s commissioning panels. We provide training and advice for disabled artists regarding international work. We support a placement programme for disabled arts professionals from outside the UK to gain valuable experience working with Unlimited’s team at Shape Arts and Artsadmin. To date we have had placements from Australia, Cambodia, South Africa, Taiwan, and Uganda. In 2016, with Arts Council England Ambition for Excellence funding, we launched a second round of Unlimited International commissions, resulting in collaborations with Brazil, Palestine, Japan, Singapore, and India.
Over the last 10 years we have established an international biennial showcase, the Unlimited Festival, delivered by Southbank Centre, which reflects the growing international demand for the UK’s disability arts. At the first Unlimited Festival in 2012, we hosted 50 international delegates. By 2018, the number of international delegates had grown to 120 from 40 countries. We introduce the delegates to UK disability arts by hosting presentations and talks, networking events and providing opportunities to attend performances by leading UK artists.
Working closely with Unlimited and Unlimited commissioned artists, our disability arts programme spans 46 countries and includes tours and exhibitions, disability conferences, and symposia, disability awareness and access training, skills development for disabled artists and practitioners and consultancy to cultural organisations and governments. We have also developed tools that can be used by anyone such as our short, animated video that explains the social model of disability, and our Disability Arts International website promoting increased access to the arts for disabled artists and audiences around the globe. In 2021, we provided micro-awards to artists to collaborate remotely. A few examples of these collaborations from the Americas include Hannah Aria (England: South East) and Estela Lapponi (Brazil); Gina Biggs/SheWolf (Wales), Javier Hernando Peralta Gonzalez (Colombia), and Anthar Kharana (Colombia); Poet Ekiwah Adler-Belendez (Mexico) and multimedia artist Juan delGado (England: London) and Chris Tally Evans (Wales) to work with Fernanda Amaral (Brazil).
Our partnership places UK disabled artists and cultural leaders firmly at the centre of an international disability arts movement which is a catalyst for social change. The Unlimited/British Council partnership leaves a legacy that is far-reaching and transformational. From the establishment of the first integrated theatre and dance companies in Bangladesh and Armenia respectively, to the first Minister for Disability in Korea, the work we initiate and support has a profound impact in arts and culture. In the Americas, this legacy is taking shape in ways that amplify the work done by arts and activist groups in the cultural sector. Our programmes create spaces for cultural exchange and raising awareness, like with Cripping the Arts in Toronto (2016, 2019), Trazando Possibilidades in Guadalajara (2019) and the inclusive programme for the FIBA in Buenos Aires (2020); It supports and showcases UK and local talents, like the collaboration between Natalia Mallo and Marc Brew in Brazil, and influences and builds capacity for accessibility and inclusion through the Relaxed Performance project in Canada. All these initiatives, realized on the ground with key partners, further create an enabling environment for arts and culture for all.
Elements of this text are from an article by curator and writer Linda Rocco, originally published on the Unlimited website and as part of her associate role with Unlimited and The Art House. She interviews Tony Heaton OBE, David Hevey and Jo Verrent, members of the Disability Arts Movement, for their thoughts on the legacy of disabled people’s art and activism in the UK.
Following the first round of Unlimited during the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad, the British Council team in Brazil developed Unlimited: Arte sem Limites together with 8 UK and 20 Brazilian cultural organisations. This programme was part of Transform, a programme that aimed to connect British and Brazilian cultural organisations and artists around programmes that focused on social change.
Unlimited in Brazil was an extensive programme that aimed to increase access to culture and encourage artists with disabilities to produce work. It was a unique umbrella programme focused on disability arts with a special focus on showcasing high-quality work produced by disabled artists. The programme had four major strands of work, from access auditing and policymaking, capacity-building and training for showcasing to collaborations and co-productions. A total of 16 projects took place between 2012-2016 in Brazil and in the UK.
In its final year, Unlimited held its biggest projects and events culminating with activities within the Paralympic celebrations Rio 2016.
Amongst others, Natalia Mallo, producer and artist, was supported to develop MayBe, a dance piece co-created by the Brazilian artist Gisele Calazans and the Scottish artist Marc Brew, which subsequently toured both in Brazil and the UK. Graeae Theatre presented The Garden – a large-scale open-air performance, as part of the British Council’s Cultural Olympiad programme during the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. This was the largest project ever produced as part of Unlimited in Brazil and it was a recreation of the original piece, with Brazilian artists in the cast. Finally, in partnership with Biblioteca Parque, Rio 2016 and Rio’s Secretary of Culture, the Fórum Unlimited de acessibilidade na cultura was a 3-day forum on accessibility where Shape Arts delivered a training course for 20 people who cascaded their learnings in their institutions and networks.
With activities happening in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Recife, Edinburgh and London, Unlimited: Arte sem Limites engaged with more than 500 d/Deaf and disabled artists and allies, and a total of 89,000 audience attended Unlimited events across the four years of the programme. In the Americas region, this programme has led the way in developing a model of cultural relations focused on disability and based on nurtured international exchanges and collaborations.