Arts and Culture Norway: joining the ‘disability revolution’ in the Norwegian arts sector

Arts and Culture Norway is the main governmental operator for the implementation of Norwegian cultural policy. Here, Senior Advisor Kaja Tvedten Jorem describes the journey the organisation has been on over the last two years in discovering and attempting to remove some of the barriers for disabled artists in Norway’s cultural sector.

White female wheelchair dancer leans back on her back wheels
Dancer and co-researcher in the research project ‘Artist – an accessible profession?’ Elen Øyen. Photograph: Jøran Værdahl.

Acknowledging lack of knowledge

In late 2020 Arts and Culture Norway was assigned the role as National Coordinator of Diversity in the Arts, which is also when I started working at the organisation. In this role, our goal is to develop knowledge and mobilise the cultural sector to take action towards increased equity and diversity both on the stage, in front of the stage and behind the stage. Having worked with diversity in the arts and culture sector for over a decade, I thought I had a good idea of the barriers and opportunities different minority groups are facing. I was wrong. Speaking to hundreds of artists, colleagues, activists, and institutions to inform our role, we had to acknowledge that we had very limited understanding of people with disabilities as artists, cultural workers and change-makers in the sector. A survey we did in 2021 showed that only 36% of cultural institutions in Norway focus on people with disabilities in their work on diversity. We quickly understood that we and sector needed to join the ‘disability revolution’ (as one of our collaborators called it), that was forthcoming in the Norwegian arts and culture sector. 

Structural approach and ‘nothing about us without us’

In all the work we do as National Coordinator of Diversity in the Arts, we work structurally to address the barriers and opportunities that exist both in the sector and internally in our institution. We cannot enable change unless we fundamentally address the processes and power structures that include some and exclude others. This also means acknowledging and addressing the power we have, as the main governmental operator for implementing cultural policy. We cannot do anything without engaging the artists, groups and communities that have the lived experience. Luckily, we connected with several actors with expert knowledge about arts and disability in Norway. We made an online overview of resources, and partner with many of them in our work. It turns out the community was happy we got involved and only wondered why we had taken so long…

Disabled man in a wheelchair talking to two people in a gallery setting
One of the current trainees, Alexander Petersen. Photo: Odd Mehus.

Trainee grant – ‘it’s our turn now!’

Arts and Culture Norway and the independent Arts Council administer many grants for artists and institutions in Norway, but how accessible are these and the sector itself to deaf and disabled artists? Not very, unfortunately. Structural discrimination against people with disabilities is as real in the arts sector as it is in other sectors. Therefore, the Arts Council, in collaboration with us, decided to establish a trainee grant to encourage the recruitment of people with disabilities in the arts. Through the grant scheme cultural institutions match with a disabled or deaf artist or cultural worker and are awarded funding for employment for 1-3 years. We made some structural adjustments to the grant based on insights from potential trainees/institutions, including:

  1. teaming up with The Norwegian Association of Disabled (NAD) and the Norwegian Labour and Welfare administration (NAV);
  2. making the requirements more flexible;
  3. ensuring all communication highlights the benefits for both parties.

In the fall of 2022 8 trainees and cultural institutions started working together all over the country, and in 2023 and 2024 ten more will start. The Time to Act Report underlined how pivotal hiring is to the sector and the actors in it, and our experience thus far shows this to be true.    

Artist – an accessible profession? Research and interactive learning

While there was some research and knowledge about the accessibility for deaf and disabled audiences in Norway, we discovered that there was hardly any research on artists with disabilities in Norway. Therefore, in 2021, we commissioned a research project about artists with disabilities in Norway entitled ‘Artist – an accessible profession? The aim of the study has been to identify enablers and barriers for professional artists with disabilities in Norway, and the research was carried out by a team of five co-researchers with and without disabilities from Fafo and NTNU – the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. During the course of a year the researchers interviewed 45 representatives from the arts and culture sector, and 19 individual artists with disabilities.

The results show that the barriers to working as an artist with a disability in Norway are greater than the enablers, and that the barriers are systemic and normalised in the arts and culture field as well as on a societal level. The report outlines 10 fields of action, and the researchers, institutions and artists alike hope this report can contribute to greater equity in the arts and be a politically significant piece of research. As commissioners of this research, there has been great learning for us, which we continue to process and act on. The research has also made it clear that we need to collaborate with other sectors, for instance the education and welfare sectors, to address the systemic opportunities and challenges for artists with disabilities.

White man with shaved head speaking into a microphone.
Author and member of Arts Council Norway, Bjørn Hatterud. Photo: Sunniva Glessing

Massive job ahead – create, engage, love!

Sitting here now, 2 years after the embarrassing epiphany revealing that I and Arts and Culture Norway had no clue, it’s clear to me that we are still learning. Slowly, but surely we are contributing with some knowledge towards the necessary revolution that will make the Norwegian arts richer and better. On April 27th 2023, we gathered artists, politicians, and institutions from the cultural sector and beyond to a large conference to present, discuss and act for a more accessible and equitable future.

In our own institution, we still have a lot of work to do to engage all layers of the organisation, to advise the ministry, to ensure more data and knowledge is produced, to address ableism, and to act on the many recommendations that the research report entrust us with. This work coincides so well with our new strategy: Create, Engage, Love. In order to achieve our vision of having a ‘society rich in art and culture’ we need the richness that deaf and disabled artists and audiences provide.  

Together and alongside the artists, cultural workers and institutions that need to be heading this revolution, I am convinced that Arts and Culture Norway can play a part in this necessary change towards a more accessible sector. And as I always believe artists say things much better than any bureaucrat ever will, I would like to end with the text that author Bjørn Hatterud wrote to accompany the short film that film director Mari Storstein made about her fellow artists with disabilities:

How do you make especially interesting art? I’m not sure, but let’s start with what gets the ball rolling.

Sometimes, the process can start with an everyday thought or experience. Sometimes, it might spring from a theoretical concept or a motif in another artist’s work. Art can come from eternal ideas or challenging experiments. From the power of thought as well as manual dexterity or physical mastery. Thinking about or sensing the world in new ways develops your art. If the old way of creating a work doesn’t work, you have to develop a new one.

Bodies that move differently in the world, that sense the world differently or process impressions differently, experience the world differently. Daily life is slightly different for those of us whose functions are different. We gain insights into other concepts and look at art with another gaze.

Other lived experiences and references provide a springboard for art of a different kind.

Different bodies, senses and ways of thinking provide unusual tools and techniques with which to create art. If one obvious way of creating things is lost, you develop another. We who have different bodies are used to developing new methods. Our daily lives are filled with problem solving.

A differently lived life opens doors to new approaches and starting points. Other ways of being in the world give other raw materials and other techniques. The result is other kinds of art. And with that, we have returned to the question we started with.

How do you make especially interesting art? I can give you no clear and simple answer. But one thing is clear, if you have a different body, move differently, sense things differently or think differently, you have an incredibly good starting point!

Bjørn Hatterud

The report ‘Artist – an accessible profession’ is available here with an English summary.

An English transcript of this film is available here.

Sign Up To Our Newsletter

See our past newsletters
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.