Something exciting is happening across Europe; organisations are opening their eyes to the aesthetic challenge often posed by disabled artists. Joe Turnbull, Assisant Editor of Disability Arts Online speaks to Ben Evans, Head of Arts and Disability, EU Region at the British Council to discuss how sharing expertise can capitalise on this momentum.

Can you explain your role at the British Council?

I’m Head of Arts and Disability covering the European Union region for the British Council. I oversee all of our work focussing on improving access to disabled people as audiences and artists. I coordinate the work that we do within countries which have arts programmes, as well as trying to build larger European projects and ‘coalitions of the willing’ of large arts organisations who want to make change.

What first got you interested in Arts and Disability?

I was Head of Theatre at Ovalhouse in South London for six years. It was one of the venues in the ‘60s and ‘70s which was known for making work with artists outside of the ‘mainstream’ – and it continues to be, to this day. It was one of the earlier homes for people like Graeae Theatre Company. When I was there we were working with the likes of Deafinitely Theatre Company, Pete Edwards and Mind the Gap. It was there that I deeply engaged in work by disabled artists who were radically experimenting with form, where I experienced for the first time integrated access and learned about the process of making great and not mediocre audio description.

Why is Arts and Disability a priority for the British Council in Europe?

The British Council’s arts programme in Europe focuses on just four key areas of work, and one of them is our Arts and Disability programme. The reason for that is there is unique expertise and momentum in the UK. Also, there is something exciting happening in Europe that we recognise; organisations are becoming more interested in the aesthetic challenge to form that disabled artists often bring. Policymakers are also becoming much more aware of the moral imperative for making the arts more accessible to disabled people.

Why does that programme focus on getting disabled artists in mainstream settings?

Some of that is to do with what we’re hearing from UK artists, and what they are requesting of us – and some of it’s to do with the sector we work in. That’s very different from other regions. I know some artists who might say ‘I’m very happy to be framed as a disabled artist when I go with you to Nigeria or Cambodia because I understand the unique way I will be seen there. But when I come to be seen in Germany, I just want to be presented as a leading dancer or choreogarapher’.

Europe has a long and proud tradition of disabled artists; many countries in Europe have companies that are 25 years old, as well as very established festivals and events. I think one of the challenges in many parts of Europe is that those are quite separate from many of the mainstream arts organisations. In fact, many are funded very differently through social or disability funding, rather than through the arts. What this does is cause a separation; it prevents artists from moving from the small scale to reaching bigger mainstream institutions.

I absolutely recognise the importance of bespoke disability events; there are marketing reasons for it; there are reasons for developing a community of artists who have a robust but positive way of engaging with each other’s work. Events like Unlimited and DaDaFest have been instrumental in building momentum in the UK. However, in certain parts of Europe the struggle has been to see even the very best high-quality disabled artists at a leading dance festival or at a leading theatre or in a major gallery. Of course, some of those barriers still exist in the UK, but to a smaller degree now, than elsewhere in Europe.

I think what we should be doing is changing the face of the arts within Europe so that the mainstreaming of disabled artists can exist alongside the supportive and unique opportunities that are the disability-focussed events.

IETM Valencia Plenary

IETM's Valencia Plenary. Photograph: © Vincent Chartier

If you could pick one initiative that you’ve been involved in in the last year that you are most proud of, what would it be?

I’m really excited by our work with IETM (international network for contemporary performing arts), which is a key network of independent producers and artists working in the performing arts in Europe. IETM and the British Council have a partnership which is all about increasing the diversity of IETM’s membership. The British Council started this work by focussing on the British delegation to their twice-annual events. We’re now about to open out our call for the second bespoke delegation of British D/deaf and disabled artists. That sits alongside our work with Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic delegations.

Our focus has been making sure the British delegates (there may be 80-90 at any one conference) represent the diversity and artistic innovation of the UK scene. We’re also working with IETM to support and share knowledge with the other organisations like us within other countries, to bring more diverse delegations from their countries.

Within those meetings, we have been supporting conversations on aesthetics of disabled artists, for example, rather than focussing on access for audiences or physical access to buildings, really looking at bringing the creative case to those discussions. We’re launching a publication this Autumn looking at the aesthetics of disability in dance. It’s about introducing different ways of thinking about disability that may have been around in the UK for many years, but are quite new to many of the delegates at IETM.

It’s not a partnership which is about saying ‘look what we do, isn’t it fantastic?’ But it’s about saying the UK has a particular trajectory, let’s share that, let’s hear from other countries about how they engage with disability, and let us address an issue together, in our own unique ways. And the issue is this: European arts networks do not at the moment represent the art scene in Europe, let alone wider society.

What are you doing in your work to improve access for audiences?  

In Portugal there used to be one audio-describer for theatre and visual arts, who had trained in her previous work in the UK. She was the only one. Working with VocalEyes we trained her as a trainer of other audio-describers so that she could develop a programme to increase the number in Portugal. It was supported by a local organisation, Acesso Cultura and VocalEyes themselves went out to deliver additional training. That’s an example of building capacity for accessibility for audiences.

But we can’t be that hands on throughout Europe, so what we have been doing a lot of, and we’ll be doing more of, is projects that target the funders, policymakers and very senior institutions to support change for access for audiences. A major part of our work has been roundtables introducing people like Arts Council England and Creative Scotland to their peers in different countries talking about the way a funder can play a key role in encouraging, and in some cases, insisting upon, greater access for audiences.

Finally, we see ourselves as having a unique role in coordinating and sharing much of the expertise in the UK. I think it would be fair to say that many of the access services in the UK are seen as world quality. Through Disability Arts International, for example, we hope to share what’s going on in the UK such as developments in audio description or captioning and sharing that knowledge with arts organisations, producers and policymakers overseas. This isn’t a one-way street; there is some remarkable work being done in Europe, there are organisations who are experts and incredibly experienced – and in some cases – challenging the UK to improve. This is not about broadcasting Britain, this is also about building a more mutual conversation about expertise and knowledge and improving access for disabled people.

What would success look like in your work over the next few years?

Candoco Dance Company & Jerome Bel The Show Must Go On

Candoco Dance Company performing Jérôme Bel's The Show Must Go On (2015). Photograph: Pedro Machado

It’s hard to characterise in a region which is so diverse, culturally. More and more I think it is a success when we can contribute to putting access for disabled people and artists on the agenda of cultural ministries, national and regional arts funders and major European networks. We’re just starting that work. Each of those organisations will have to address the barriers faced in very different ways. Some will go on a fast journey, others on a slow one. The artistic and cultural environment in which they work, in particular with regards to the relationship of disabled people within society, are completely different. There is no one size fits all.

Fundamentally, in the longer term, we want to change the face of the arts in the Europe. On the way, let’s make sure British artists are seen and promoted. Let’s change the way disabled artists are seen and improve the access for disabled people full stop.

What’s coming up that you’re excited about?

One of the most exciting pieces of work I have ever seen was Candoco’s restaging of Jérôme Bel's seminal dance production, The Show Must Go On. I’m delighted that Jérôme has given it permission to be presented outside the UK. It will be performed in Paris in the Autumn by a collaboration of three of France’s arts institutions and the British Council as a presenting partner. I think the restaging of well-known works like this, and Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset, is something which will bring a whole new level of conversation and awareness of the work of inclusive companies. And in France, I think that conversation will be incredibly well received. That’s my top recommendation, go and book yourself a weekend in Paris and get yourself some tickets for it!