Art Without Limits: New Funding in Portugal

Disability Arts journalist Paul F Cockburn speaks to Américo Rodrigues, Director of DGARTES (Portugal’s arts council) and Maria Vlachou, Director of Associação Acesso Cultura, about new public funding in Portugal aimed at both supporting disabled artists and improving cultural access to wider audiences.

A white woman in her 50s whispers in the ear of a white learning disabled man. They are both lit in red light
Terra Amarela’s Fala aos Bichos (2020). Photograph: João Miguel Covas

It’s arguably the culmination of years of work and advocacy by a small number of disabled artists and informed arts professionals living and working in Portugal, and is certainly a significant development at a time when disability arts – at least, pre-Covid-19 lockdowns – was finding its way into more mainstream venues across the country.

In May 2020, two new funding streams were announced by the Direcção Geral das Artes (Directorate-General for the Arts, aka DGARTES, Portugal’s Arts Council) in association with the not-for-profit Associação Acesso Cultura (Access Culture) which director Maria Vlachou describes as “an association of cultural professionals” that has been “advocating for the need to give the necessary recognition and support for disability arts and also disabled audiences”.

“There are two different ‘lines’ or ‘streams’ (of new funding),” explains Vlachou. “One is aimed at supporting disabled artists in creating works, and also perhaps giving them an incentive to create their own projects; not just to be involved in someone else’s.”  Total funding for this ‘Partnership Support Program: Art without limits – Creation’ (Programa de Apoio em Parceria: Arte sem limites – Criação) is €180,000, with individual allocations capped at €30,000 per project. Applications could involve the visual arts, performing arts or inter-disciplinary projects, as long as they included at least one disabled of D/deaf artist.

“Then the other part aims to supporting either small companies or even bigger organisations in including Portuguese sign language interpretation, audio description, organising ‘relaxed’ sessions, in their existing programme,” she adds. This is the ‘Partnership Support Program – Art without Limits – Accessibility to the artistic offer’ (Programa de Apoio em Parceria: Arte sem Limites – Acessibilidade à oferta artística), which consisted of €120,000 funding in total with specific project allocations topped at €15,000.

“So one is more aimed at disabled artists, and the other at creating a better relationship with audiences and creating conditions of access,” she summarises. Applications had to come from individuals, groups or organisations based in Portugal, whose professional activities are in performing arts. Supported projects will be expected to run between 1 January and 31 December 2021.

This is a new development in Portugal’s cultural sector, though Vlachou is reluctant to suggest there was a specific campaign for it. “What happened was, we got better organised,” she says. “With the creation of Associação Acesso Cultura, we started advocating for the need to give the necessary recognition and support for disability arts and also disabled audiences. We had meetings, we were doing training courses and, at the same time, we were raising awareness among our colleagues who were not very used to discussing these issues.”

A learning disabled man ina  silver body suit holds a glowing yellow circle on a stage
Dançando com a Diferença’s Happy Island, created by La Ribot (2018). Photograph: Júlio Silva Castro.

As a formal association, Associação Acesso Cultura could also – unlike individual artists or campaigners – arrange meetings with the country’s Ministry of Culture, its Arts Council, and other organisations. Although Vlachou admits that having a succession of three different Directors at the head of Portugal’s Art Council within a period of just four years meant a lot of retreading the same ground. “Every time we were going to meet the new director, we would (have to) remind them that (while) they are few, there are disabled artists in Portugal,” Vlachou says. “They have extra costs in order to do their work, it’s not the same as any other artist. And we kept raising these issues.”

In fact, Vlachou believes that the funding initiative happened in 2020 largely because of persistence: “some stubbornness as well, (with us) bringing up the issues all the time”. A distinctive aspect of this new funding initiative – announced in May, with applications accepted between early October and early November – is that its organisation is through a partnership between DGARTES and Associação Acesso Cultura.

This policy of government agencies working in partnership with other organisations and civil society is a relatively recent phenomenon in Portugal. “There was a need to directly support action within a specific context, with a view to promoting artistic diversity, through the professional practice of disabled and D/deaf artists, as well as the access of disabled people and those specific needs to the artistic offer in Portugal,” explains Américo Rodrigues, Director of DGARTES.

“Thus, the ‘Art Without Limits’ programme emerged, a funding initiative that allows DGARTES to establish agreements with public or private entities for the development of specific actions or projects in support of the arts. In this context, a protocol was signed with Acesso Cultura which, having a profound and realistic knowledge of the artistic and cultural field in the area of ​​disability, at a national level, brought in the development of this programme the knowledge and practice necessary for an appropriate approach to the specificities of this initiative.”

The work of disabled and D/deaf artists has only really been gaining traction in Portugal’s cultural mainstream during the last four to five years. “We have some people, a limited number of artists and cultural managers who (have been) ‘into’ this for 20 years or more,” Vlachou says. “But that’s a small circle of people; for them this is a big step because it’s the culmination of years and years of quality work that didn’t have the recognition it deserved.” Previously, she admits, including disabled artists was at best a box-ticking exercise for some organisations. “It was an extra for many venues: ‘OK, let’s do something with artists with disabilities, and that’s it. If we do it, we don’t need to do it again this year or with somebody else’.”

That’s now changing. “Other colleagues, I believe, are starting to become aware of this whole world that opens up once you realise how many diverse artists exist,” she says. “So I think that, with all the training courses we’ve been promoting and debates and conferences, the circle is getting larger.”

A wheelchair user is balanced on their wheels whilst two other performers hold their head and feet respectively.
CiM Companhia de Dança’s O Aqui (2017). Photograph: ARoque.

This has been helped by support from the British Council, which a few years ago signed a protocol with DGARTES and Associação Acesso Cultura, concerning training and the sharing of good practice. “We did a series of courses in November/December last year, with the British Council, and also with trainers from the UK and Portugal,” Vlachou says. “That was almost a complete review of the possibilities that exist and that we don’t really know about, that we don’t promote.” Again with support from the British Council, Associação Acesso Cultura also ran a specific training course for staff at DGARTES—the people who support, and often fund, Portugal’s cultural sector. “That was very important,” she says, “so that both sides now had a better understanding of what this involves, and what we’ve been missing.”

The actual selection of the winning proposals will be made by a jury made up of individuals suggested by both Associação Acesso Cultura and DGARTES—people “all with some experience and sensitivity in this field,” as Vlachou puts it. The successful applications should be announced before the end of 2020.

“DGARTES recognises the importance of the partnership with Acesso Cultura, which will soon translate into concrete and pioneering support in Portugal for Portuguese creators and programmers in the area of ​​accessibility,” insists Américo Rodrigues. “However, DGARTES inscribes this funding within a larger strategic option of supporting artistic entities that work with and for marginalised or forgotten audiences. We have also launched programmes that support artistic entities that work with citizens in low-density territories, with prisoners or with people with mental illness. Soon, there will be more support in partnership with other organisations, aiming at diverse communities which, obviously, deserve all the attention of an organisation that must provide a public service. Everyone should have access to artistic enjoyment, either as creators or as audience.”

The global coronavirus pandemic has, of course, affected Portugal’s cultural sector just as much as elsewhere. “People have found the motivation to prepare their applications, but they don’t know at this point what’s going to happen, when they will be able to work on their applications and then present their work,” Vlachou says. “It’s all so uncertain at the moment, but we keep going at the moment because we know can do, and then we’ll have to see, and adapt.”

For Associação Acesso Cultura and DGARTES what follows in 2021 will be a process of evaluation. “We will have to evaluate how it goes, what kinds of applications we got this year, what we need to do,” she adds. “And then another part of  our work will be to raise awareness regarding the successful applications, so that people know what came out of this. And then evaluating… what about the future?  We started it, we tried it, now let’s see…”

Acesso Cultura recently produced a publication on ‘how to create an accessibility plan’ aimed at arts organisations and venues, it is available here (in Portuguese).

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