Four and a half years to be precise. Back in 2014 I received a small project grant from Creative Case North to work on a collaborative project. I wanted to place a disabled artist with an organisation to be able to do a residency which was about their professional development – no agenda, no product, no community work, no specific outcome – just time to focus on practice and make work. I am particularly keen on rural practice, so it seemed natural to partner with Visual Arts in the Rural Community .VARC usually does long term residencies and this time structure is not always possible for artists with specific needs around disabilities. The initial project was called Passing Places and this was on VARC’s site
VARC’s Janet Ross has been working with artist Aidan Moesby on an intensive Creative Case NORTH mini-residency. The residency ‘Passing Places’ was initiated by Aidan who approached Janet with the idea of spending time exploring how it could be possible to increase accessibility to quality meaningful creative opportunities for diverse artists (in particular those with disabilities) within a rural context.
On that short residency of working collaboratively to explore the potential I wanted dispel any notion that work made by people with disabilities can be of high quality. We visited Project Ability in Glasgow and The Art House in Wakefield as exemplar organisations. This set the scene for my aspirations of working with VARC. Over the following months and years I kept a dialogue flowing with Janet Ross of VARC.
I sent her examples of work made by disabled artists and talked over the feasibility of having someone in place at Highgreen, This caused a bit of anxiety. Highgreen is literally in the middle of nowhere. No street lights – a designated dark skies area just up the road, no public transport, no popping out to the nearest shop which is some 10 miles away, uneven ground given that is a working country estate and built in the 1800’s. I tried to ease the anxiety. Unsurprisingly when you are not around disability or it is not your world then there is a lot of unknowns – basically I was trying to reassure and say that if a normative person trips and falls it’s the same issues as a disabled person – legally and practically. The increasing strength of work within the Adam Reynolds exhibitions was further evidence that work made by disabled artists can stand up to rigorous critique.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2018 and the advert goes out for a disabled artist for a residency opportunity at Highgreen with VARC. Yes we got some criticism, the accommodation is up a flight of stairs, we wanted people to be able to drive so they could be independent (as is the expectation with every other artist) we wouldn’t take people to the shops. This caused more anxiety but my approach is this is a pilot project. If we can prove a success maybe we can get a grant for accessible accommodation – the artist gets a good stipend and a free flat and a free studio – it is one more opportunity for a disabled artist in a particular fallow area of opportunity. Would people prefer this not to be available due to accommodation accessed by stairs or no transport. Not all disabilities are physical or visible.
Yes the situation is not perfect – but we don’t live in a perfect world. I am proud to be able to curate / facilitate this residency and to have spent the last 4 years in conversation to make it happen. It is better than doing nothing or not offering a residency at all. It is a start. I would love this opportunity to spend a month focussing on my art work at my own pace and be paid for it. And have an exhibition if i want at the end of it. The artist has an amazing amount of agency in this situation. In addition it means that the main residencies offered by VARC become more accessible to disabled artists which run over a period of 9 months. VARC has a better understanding of disability and is firmly engaged in the conversation and process.
The first week in August 2018 sees Malgorzata Dawidek arrive at Highgreen to take up residency for a month. I am looking forward to welcoming her and wish her well for her month in the heart of Northumberland.