What’s new in Europe Beyond Access II?

By Joe on March 1, 2024

Following the announcement that Europe Beyond Access has secured Creative Europe funding for a further four years, Project Director, Ben Evans explains what was learnt from the first iteration and what changes will be made.

A disabled woman props herself up on her front on stage
Moby Dick, Chiara Bersani/Danskompaniet Spinn. Image: Simone Cargnoni

Late last year, it was confirmed that Europe Beyond Access (EBA), billed as the ‘world’s largest Arts & Disability collaboration’ would continue until the end of 2027 thanks to €2m funding from the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, which has been matched by the consortium of EBA partners. Whilst some of the core aims, principles and partners will remain the same ‘EBA II’ will have significant differences from the original project.

Key project outputs

EBA II will deliver a bold programme of events, artistic exchange, knowledge sharing, research and conferences. Some of the most significant project impacts include:

  • 3 major new project disabled-led co-productions touring across Europe – developed through open call.
  • 19 other newly commissioned works.
  • 19 presentations of existing touring works.
  • Project Laboratories, bringing together 36 artists from across Europe for artistic experimentation and exchange.
  • 4 Artistic residencies to be led by disabled artists – discovered through open call.
  • Digital Masterclasses accessible to artists from around the world.
  • 11 National Conferences bringing together disabled artists, institutions and cultural stakeholders.
  • A major report into the lack of access to cultural education for disabled aspiring theatre and dance professionals.

New project, new partners

Five new core partners from across Europe are joining the EBA consortium, stretching the scope and ambition even further.

The new partners are:

Serbian learning-disability specialists Per.Art, a partner on the original project will be stepping aside. “The knowledge of Per.Art as a specialist disability arts organisation and of working in the context of Central Eastern Europe will be missed,” says Ben Evans, Project Director and previous head of Arts & Disability EU region at the British Council. “So it becomes our responsibility to make sure artists from those geographies are still served through the project.”

Thanks to an ‘open call’ methodology, Evans is confident that more disabled artists from a wider range of European countries will be supported, with artists from all of the Creative Europe (EU) nations eligible in addition to the UK and Switzerland.

Underlying principles won’t change

Certain principles and methodologies will carry forward into the new project. EBA II will remain ‘impairment ambivalent’. Many large-scale collaborations focus on one specific area like deaf culture or learning-disability. EBA II will continue to take a more general approach to disability.

EBA recognises there is great geographic imbalance across Europe with vastly different funding structures and available opportunities for disabled artists, not to mention historical, social and cultural differences. The answer then, can’t be one size fits all, with partners having to respond to different local challenges whilst trying to drive change at a European level.

There is also an acknowledgement that disabled artists face greater geographic isolation than their non-disabled peers, they are excluded from education, professional networks and it’s harder to make connections with artists like themselves. As such, EBA II will continue to focus on activities which facilitate exchange between disabled artists from around Europe, including significant digital exchange activity which can reduce many of the barriers of physical interaction.

EBA I’s strapline was ‘Supporting disabled artists to break the glass ceilings of contemporary dance & theatre,’ and to a large extent ‘mainstreaming’ is still the core goal.

“With the type and scale of institution involved, what we’re able to do is bring conversations to truly national and international mainstream contexts,” says Evans. “If Holland Dance Festival or Kamnpagel puts something on the agenda, it does get noticed in a way it might not if it’s a small independent company. So it’s still a key aim.”

However, there is a recognition that the radical work being made by disabled artists is what makes it stand out and this causes a tension with the idea of mainstreaming.

“Every artist is distinct,” Evans explains. “But we know that disabled artists tend to be more radical in terms of artform and content. Partly because they’ve been excluded from things like mainstream arts education and training. What we’re trying to achieve is supporting artists to break into the mainstream, but whilst keeping that radical, boundary-pushing edge and not being assimilated into it.”

Staff from the EBA II Project partners at the first EBA II activity in the Netherlands.

Changes informed by learning

Evans admits that they were aware of the problem of the lack of artistic leadership by disabled artists in EBA I, but needed time to find the solutions. The project partners are not disabled-led, and few of the delivery team currently are.

“We are mainstream institutions which are committed to changing our institutions and the way we work and to learn from supporting disabled artists. But the question becomes, how do you devolve decision-making to disabled artists?”

For EBA II, all of the main project commissions (i.e. co-productions/co-commissions between partners) will be led by disabled artists. Each partner also has budget to bring in disabled curators in order to develop any of their key EBA programmes. For example, EBA II activity kicked off with Holland Dance Festival’s flagship arts and disability programme DanceAble in February 2024. This year, it has been co-curated with UK disabled artist, Kimberley Harvey.

Whereas EBA I relied on partner organisations’ existing networks and relationships, for EBA II all of the major artists opportunities including project commissions, residencies, curators of major project workshops and jury members (selection panels) to choose the recipients of those residencies will be chosen via open calls. The previous process of inviting specific artists has its problems.

“Of course, when you invite someone in, it’s on your terms,” Evans explains. “You set the scale, and often the theme. The power is with the inviting institution. So instead we’re looking at open calls. Simple expressions of interest. If someone comes forward with something hugely ambitious, it’s our job to find the additional resourcing to make it happen. If we select jury members from our existing network, it’s not only limited, but it also carries forward our power and biases.”

Open calls also allow the project to cast a wider net. Certain artists worked with EBA I several times due to their invaluable experience.

“We don’t want to work with an artist in a one-off way to use their experience then abandon them,” says Evans. “But, we’re also aware some artists are already well known in the European performing arts scene and don’t need our partnership as much as others”.

Related to this, will be an increased emphasis on the role of independent disabled artists, rather than those from established companies. This way EBA II can more directly support the artistic leadership of artists who have their own creative ideas and impetus.

For EBA II 10 disabled artists and/or disabled-led companies will have a formal advisory role as ‘expert collaborators’. The idea is they can be critical friends who can steer decisions and raise any issues from a position of lived experience.

Finally, EBA II is seeking to challenge the idea of being an ‘inclusive’ project.

“Rather than trying to include disabled artists into previously established routines and methodologies within the project partners, through processes like open calls and different power dynamics we are aiming to help disabled artists present their work how they want to. And it becomes more about how we can help them achieve it.”

All of this is an attempt to devolve power to disabled artists within EBA II and hopefully foster disabled leadership.

“It’s about supporting disabled artists into positions of curation and producing. And introducing them to the complexity of these large-scale projects, which in the future should be run by disabled artists.”

Increasing advocacy and facilitating conversations

One of the greatest successes of EBA I was in its advocacy for access at a European policy level, through things like the landmark Time to Act reports which revealed shocking gaps in knowledge about disability and access across Europe’s cultural sector. Greater emphasis and dedicated staff time will be given to the advocacy side of EBA II.

“Something we couldn’t have known at the beginning of EBA I was the huge impact of it across Europe including in cultural ministries, big European cultural networks and European cultural institutions. Whilst I’m not the only person working on it, it will be my responsibility to coordinate conversations with the European Commission about what they want to achieve in terms of access and inclusion within their programmes. Making sure we are at the table. Making sure we have the budget to bring disabled artists with us to that table. When we designed EBA I we had no idea this would be such a big part of the work. This time we’re going into it with open eyes and a more strategic approach. Who do we need to be in conversation with to make change?”

Whilst working with the upper echelons of the European cultural ecology, EBA will also retain a connection to the grassroots via its support for the European Arts and Disability Cluster, a network of independent artists and mostly small, disability-focussed organisations in 19 countries across Europe. 

“Many of whom have been doing amazing work for 20-30 years but often are not at the table. Not having their voices heard. The Cluster acts as a convener of these conversations joining up both levels. These smaller companies are repositories of expertise and knowledge which is sorely needed at the policy level. The Cluster can interpret between the two and create space for them to come together.”

Whilst there’s genuine optimism for what EBA II can achieve, there’s no naivety about the scale of the task. “Advocating for access for disabled audiences, artists and arts professionals is ongoing work and it feels unsurmountable in some contexts at times,” cautions Evans. “Lots of progress has been made. But there’s still a lot to do. Disabled artists continue to have shocking experiences across Europe. We must not forget that.” 

Change of role for the British Council

For EBA I, the British Council was the lead partner, responsible for the central project administration and communications and specific project activity within Poland. Due to Brexit, UK institutions are now ineligible for Creative Europe funding. As such, Swedish dance company, Skänes Dansteater will assume the role of lead partner, with Italian dance festival Oriente Occidente responsible for project communications.

“For the British Council it was a great shame not to be able to continue as a main partner.” Explains Evans. “Which is why the British Council has now put in its own money into the project which isn’t co-financed. Maybe one way of thinking about the British Council’s job is to facilitate relationships, build projects that have impact, sharing the best of British expertise and then take a step back once the relationships are up and thriving. Which they certainly are when you look at the UK artists working with several of the project partners in co-curation roles.”

Thanks to this contribution, the British Council will remain as an ‘Associate partner’, securing access to the open calls for UK-based disabled artists in the process. Evans will remain as Project Director but will leave his role at British Council to join Skänes Dansteater. As associate partner, the British Council will ensure the learning, resources and artistic innovation of the project has a truly global reach, ensuring it is widely disseminated via British Council offices worldwide and through its media channels and networks.

“One of the great opportunities for EBA II is for the discussion and the artistic drive of the project to be less UK focussed,” Evans enthuses. “The UK has a specific relation between arts and disability, the social context of disability, an established sector and vocabulary. That’s not the same around Europe. It will be really interesting to see how things develop with the UK not leading project communications and administration. That can only be a good thing to support a more authentic series of local arts and disability communities. Maybe it’s the right time for the British Council to step back and allow the project to flourish and take on a new flavour.”

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