One Small Voice: Jo Verrent

Published on 23 May 2016

How do we introduce disability arts into the mainstream? Unlimited’s Jo Verrent shares her experiences.

INTERVIEW BY PAMELA HO

Unlimited is the world’s largest commissioner of disability arts, with a budget of £3 million (S$6.04 million) over three years. For the last festival, we received some 200 applications, of which we commissioned nine. While we now have a significant profile in the United Kingdom, it wasn’t the case 10 years ago. So how do you make the jump?

Firstly, it’s an intention, it’s deliberate. If you allow things to evolve organically, it’s not going to happen because the impression of disabilities holds that back. If non-disabled people are in charge, they limit the potential all the time because they don’t believe it to be possible. Our panel is made of predominantly disabled people, but also of mainstream curators and programmers.

Secondly, we make it happen through taking risks, through really searching out people with potential and investing heavily in them — alongside non-disabled collaborators who are not just prepared to give, but to learn. It’s this two-way exchange that really makes the difference.

Thirdly, funders need to fund process, not just end-product. We incubate people. This is where allies are so important: we go to the national youth theatre, dance companies and outreach companies already working with young people, and we ask them, “Who’s the really good one? Who’s the person you really don’t have the time to push because you have to work with the numbers?”

We might invest in 30 young people, and only three of them go on to have big commissions. So you have to find lots of people to see who will take things forward; because if you put low-quality work on a platform meant for high-quality work, it backfires. People then see it and go, “Ah, there, I always knew it was going to be rubbish!”

In Singapore, there are disabled artists making quality work you can begin to build with: visual artist Chng Seok Tin, for example; and I was told there’s a good choreographer who has Parkinson’s now. If his work is shifting because of his impairment, that’s brilliant! Through such people, you can begin to challenge assumptions, then slowly bring others through. It’s seeing what’s ready to be shared now, and then finding the right platforms to share them.

Recently, from a partnership with the British Council and Arts Council England, we managed to fund another programme called Unlimited International. We want that cross-cultural stretch! So we’ll be selecting works based on not just the idea, but on what’s the potential of it to really move the country forward in its developmental process.

At the end of the day, it’s for the benefit of society to include everybody because then you have a richer, more textured, more diverse society. It’s not about disabled people holding back, trying not to be a burden. They need to come forward in order for society to become more enriched and to benefit from their inclusion. There’s a quote I like that says: “you serve no one by hiding your light”. It’s only through shining that you give others permission to shine.

Jo Verrent is the senior producer for Unlimited (www.weareunlimited.org.uk) — the world’s largest commissioning programme for disabled artists — and its sister programme, Unlimited Impact, in the United Kingdom. She works in arts and culture at strategic levels with national agencies, such as Arts Council England and Creative Scotland, and on the ground through myriad events and opportunities (speaking, training, writing and curating) to turn policy into real action, while embedding the belief that diversity adds texture.

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