NDACA: the story of one of the world’s first disability arts archives

By Joe Turnbull on September 24, 2018

In June 2018, Shape Arts launched the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA), one of the first of its kind in the world, which chronicles the heritage story of the UK’s Disability Arts Movement and catalogues key pieces from it for posterity. Joe Turnbull speaks to David Hevey, NDACA Project Director and CEO of Shape Arts about this landmark archive.

David Hevey holding piece of paper
Project Director, David Hevey examines items from the archive. Image courtesy of NDACA

NDACA launched with a celebratory event at the UK’s House of Lords on 20 June this year, the culmination of more than six years of development since NDACA was awarded Heritage Lottery Funding to realise one of the first ever archives of disability arts. But the groundwork for NDACA far predates 2012. “Tony Heaton, Allan Sutherland, Deborah Williams and others had the idea that the art of the Disability Arts Movement should be preserved, and this whole idea of Disability Arts as being ephemeral and not worthy of its heritage place in history had to be contested,” Hevey tells me. “They had the far-sightedness, going back to late 1980s, but it took time for the outside world to catch up to Disability Arts and counter-culture’s validity.”

In 2012, Shape, then headed up by Heaton himself, led a successful partner consortium bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. That’s when Hevey came on board as Project Director. The project had to go through a lengthy development phase collecting pledges from partners and securing the initial bedrock of the collection, as well as securing major funding from HLF. The delivery phase started in late 2015. To date, the project has received nearly £1 million worth of funding from HLF, Arts Council England and Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Hevey is unequivocal in the arguing for the importance of this resource:

“In my view the Disability Arts Movement helped achieve rights in the mid-90s [with the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act], by making visible new identities and new arguments and by presenting a new type of disabled person that was angry and full of agency for change. I think it deserves to be in the pantheon of great radical arts movements alongside things like the Harlem Renaissance. It’s one of the most significant counter-cultural movements of the 20thcentury. Our ambition for NDACA, along with our partners, is to cement that as a widely held belief. It may take us ten years or more to get it into everyone’s minds! It’s important to collect radical culture, because the margins become the future’s mainstream. People tend to forget that and bulldoze the margins because they are not currently mainstream.”

Disability arts is by no means unique to the UK, but I ask Hevey what it is about the UK context that has allowed initiatives like NDACA to flourish.

“You don’t want to be chauvinistic nor telling others how to do things. Each movement across the world has its own route to agency. The interesting thing about the UK disability arts and rights movements is that they understood that the state has the money and the power to make changes. The bigger the state, and the more you can contest the state, the more rights you can win. You get the state to fund the rights and the art. Where there’s less of a solidly taxing, reasonably well-off state, it’s harder; in the USA for example, it’s much tougher for the disability rights movement – perhaps.”

Hevey plucks out a simple example to back up the point. When his team were travelling the country doing their ‘van and scan’ work – collecting digital renditions of the objects – he said they should get in touch with the Culture Minister, Ed Vaisey. “It’s progressive, diverse content, I knew they’d be on board,” explains Hevey. “Within an hour of us contacting his office, Vaisey was tweeting about our project.”

Multiple t-shirts with slogans on
Poppy Nash’s 2018 NDACA protest T-shirt workshop at Tate Modern

Naturally, the ingenuity and initiative shown by groups and individuals within the UK’s Disability Arts Movement played a part in its achievements too. “The movement in the UK was very media-savvy with things like the block telethon protests and stopping public transport which captured the media’s attention. It had clever slogans like ‘piss on pity’ and ‘to boldly go where everyone else has gone before’ which really helped amplify the impact. Lots of people are alienated, so there’s a sort of dog whistle support for a movement that can be seen as sticking it to the man.”

The intertwined nature of disability arts and rights comes across strongly in NDACA’s framing of the collection. “If you research the UK’s Disability Arts Movement it’s hard to avoid the fact that it was attached to the rights movement,” explains Hevey. “For example, Vic Finkelstein played a huge role in setting up both the Union of the physically impaired against segregation and London Disability Arts Forum. But it was a broad movement. The vast majority may not have been political but we focussed in on a particular narrative, because you can’t collect it all. We do have an acquisitions policy, we’re not collecting every moment of disabled people’s art, ever. Nor are we aiming to be the only heritage story of disability arts, even in the UK. This is not a hegemonic voice, it’s a particular promotion of the disability arts movement, with a focus on the radical.”

Initial responses have been very positive, with a surprisingly broad audience for the collection. “We’re on audiences of five million to date,” says Hevey. “For going live, we aimed for 250,000 and we got two million. The reason for that is Design Week carried it as their main story. So that week we were in the top 100 trending things on Twitter in the UK. The idea that we were collecting the ‘heritage of social change’ really appealed to them.”

With a project of such size and scope, there are bound to be multiple challenges and lessons learned. Hevey reflects on a few of them:

“The first issue when undertaking a heritage project of this nature is you have to have the rights first. There were a number of ‘orphan works’ were you don’t know who the owner is. Under orphan works law you have to do due diligence and find the last person around who might be the rights owner to transfer them. But we couldn’t afford to go to every single rights holder in for example an issue of Disability Arts in London magazine – there would be dozens in just one edition. We managed to establish a legal principle, solid in law that those people intended for their work to be seen as part of the disability arts story.”

Tanya Raabe Webber standing with her portrait
NDACA depositing artist Tanya Raabe with part of her R:Evolve installation

“We captured all the items digitally in massive RAW files. The reason for that is to avoid digital obsolescence – in 20 years’ time you’ll still have data files that can be compressed to whatever the emerging public-facing format is. Keep the model of capture radical, across different platforms. But also, you should make sure the collection itself conveys the same radical energy as the content. It should feel live. If you’re not careful it can get safe and soporific.”

The collection now encompasses 3,500 items, which are all available to view digitally on the NDACA website. I ask Hevey if any, in particular, stand out for him.

“One of the great moments was when Alan Holdsworth aka Johnny Crescendo gave us a box of his t-shirts with all the slogans on from the 1990s. You could smell his sweat and cigarette smoke on them. It was living history. To feel the texture and have you taken back to those days was quite something. The piss on pity t-shirt seems to get the most response from audiences out of any item. At the other end of the scale is Tanya Raabe Webber’s story from being a ‘handicapped little girl’ profiled in a Northern Echo clipping to being a hugely successful painter and us having some of her amazing portraits.”

In addition to the collection Hevey, an award-winning film and television director has produced 23 films interviewing people from the movement. Eventually, 50 will be available. “They feel like they are in real time,” he explains. “The films are so slow-paced, that they don’t really work outside the website. But within the context of the archive, they are like live human beings inside this Aladdin’s cave of history.”

So, what does the future hold for this landmark archive, and could the model be replicated elsewhere?

“There are a couple of countries that have a very interesting archive challenge; their state thinks the past isn’t that important. If you’re not careful, under populism, intelligent centres of learning get lost. We are speaking to people in one or two countries about how to keep that story alive and retell it in new forms, how to campaign for the value of a heritage story and the nuances of a previous age. Going forward, the trick is to embed the sustainability. Get large Universities in UK/US to use these tools and you can achieve real impact. I hope it flourishes and becomes one of the greatest heritage stories. Long may it grow.”

Visit this page for a collection of 1000-word audio-described essays telling the story of a selection of objects from the NDACA Archive.

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