Neurodivergence and tokenism in the arts!
November 18, 2019 § Leave a comment
Stills from video capture: Sonia Boué, 2017
I’m autistic. It’s my job to be anxious. Being anxious is one of the things I do best, so I’ve done some good worrying about some of the more recent approaches I’ve experienced from arts organisations who I am not in partnership with.
I’ve started to fear the spectre of tokenism towards neurodivergence in the arts and worry that the direction of Arts Council England’s (ACE) 2020-2030 strategy could even unwittingly fuel such a development. I’m also worried about artists funding in general and for neurodivergent artists in particular, a concern which runs though my piece.
I believe that good practice for working with and supporting neurodivergence in the arts is emergent and there is much to be hopeful about in the coming decade. But I remember reading ACE’s Shaping the next ten years draft strategy document at the consultation stage and wondering what its shifting imperatives might lead to, including the possible contortions on the part of those seeking funding to fit criteria set by ACE. I’ll need to go around the houses to give the context for my specific misgivings regarding neurodivergence, but bear with me and we will get there in the end.
Since completing my own ACE funded pioneer support project for neurodivergent artists earlier this year, I’ve had cause to wonder how the new imperatives might translate at the funding interface for others? What effect might they have on potential applicants? And what of those whose practices and services won’t ever be recognised as “relevant” by ACE but are nonetheless meaningful and valuable?
Cultural historian and commentator on the arts, Robert Hewison, wrote an article A strategy for self-preservation, in Arts Professional, critiquing the Shaping the next ten years strategy thus,
“…it seems Arts Council England (ACE) intends to achieve a transformation from a country where ACE exists to help the arts to one where the arts exist to help the Arts Council.”
I admit that aspects of the document were perplexing to me. Should we now call ourselves creatives rather than artists? By which logic, what of Arts Council England as moniker! Time for some expensive rebranding, perhaps? Must creatives now also primarily seek to become agents of social change to achieve funding? What about the artists whose mission it is simply to make great art – which incidentally the sector/industry relies on? Can we as artists be expected to do all that is required by ACE without becoming something else in the process? I can speak from experience on the latter.
A paper by Susan Jones, The chance to dream: why fund individual artists? lays out the current disparities in the ACE funding system and the paucity of direct funding to artists, without which (I repeat myself ) the sector would dry up.
“The decline in volume and value of direct funding to artists from ACE is unambiguous. Notably in 2009/10 fewer than 2.5% of artists were directly funded by GftA, but by 2013/14 this reduced to less than 1% with DYCP showing a further decline.”
For those who don’t know, Grants for the Arts (GftA) now replaced by National Lottery Project Grant (NLPG) is a general sector pot. Artists must demonstrate audience engagement figures and provide match funding in order to get NLPGs, as well as making the ‘creative case’ for diversity. In my experience the effect on an arts practice is to develop invaluable project management skills (among the myriad benefits) but to lose out significantly on time to make work. Developing Your Creative Practice (DYCP) is a ‘no strings’ award designed to address core NLPG barriers for individual artists. However, DYCP is a tiny pot with only a 10% success rate for applicants, I’m told. The subtext in all ACE’s material on DYCP is that it’s almost impossible to gain this type of funding. I worry. What kind of message does this give to artists!
The stipulations within the previous GtfA, and current NLPG, have already shaped applications and had an impact on what’s produced within the arts in recent years.
In future to achieve funding applicants will need to demonstrate “ambition and quality”, “inclusivity and relevance”, “dynamism and environmental sustainability” – if you can decode what this actually means in practice. As an artist applicant it can often feel as though you’d better offer to tap dance on the roof too – the list of promises made in an application can be legion. You begin to see my point about contortion, which is an especially serious one if we’re to consider the artist and the sustainability of creative practice.
Is, as Robert Hewison seems to suggest, the tail wagging the dog?
So I’m frankly worried about a possible rash of quick-fix funding bids and tokenism at an arts organisation level too, because I’m not sure all are cut out to be ACE’s agents for socially engaged creativity (however laudable and desirable this would be in practice). Also, because I now provide pockets of sector support in this area I know how intensive and specialised the work of building authentic, robust, and meaningful programmes/services for neurodivergent communities can be. I’m immensely lucky in my partnerships, but am also sometimes approached in a tokenistic manner, which is how I know.
Specifically, in the case of neurodivergence then, I must ask where the knowledge base is for working with us? Further, how can the sector provide services that represent a good investment of public funds without such a resource, which I would add should be self-led. Until that knowledge is acquired and those relationships have been built how can arts organisations do the deep learning that’s needed? Enter Jon Adam’s long and at times painful mission to fund the Flow Observatorium hub in Portsmouth as an example of self-led/user-led organising to fill the gaps in sector knowledge and provision.
Interestingly for us ‘next frontier’ marginals – the neurodivergent – Shaping the next ten years coincides with our gradual seepage into mainstream conversations about diversity in the arts. Hence the arts are now peppered with references to neurodiversity, which in itself should be a welcome development but with which I sometimes find myself at odds.
My heart sinks knowing that uninformed bids, featuring neurodivergence, are quite possibly sitting in the Grantium portal as I write. You can understand it. We’re now more visible. I often see neurodivegence tagged in the growing lists of marginalised identities, which is lovely but at this stage of our evolution into public consciousness is often shorthand, or a friendly nod.
What a well-intentioned temptation it could be to throw in support for neurodivergent artists (for example) to strengthen a bid’s “relevance” without understanding the first thing about the need for tailored programmes/opportunties and relational work. I want to write it large, you can’t just offer the same stuff in the same way – the thinking and design around what we need has to come first and can’t effectively be bolted on afterwards.
I worry too that the imperatives for ACE “relevance” may (albeit unwittingly so) create even more barriers for the neurodivergent applicant. I could write reams about this but don’t have the unpaid time to offer up to such a task.
I’m often approached for support with ACE applications and questions about the DYCP in particular – the ‘no strings’ opportunity to focus on being an artists is probably every artist’s dream. My advice until now has been to opt for NLPG, which has a surprising 42% success rate, I’m told. But I’m beginning to wonder if we should all apply for DYCPs to demonstrate our need, rather than be put off by the mixed messages embedded in this opportunity.
I feel incredibly blessed to have gained both GftA and NLPG in my time – a combination of doggedness and good fortune. I know how vitally important these awards are to an artist’s professional life, and I’m confident in saying ACE have invested well in me. I can now give back 100%+. And now that I’m almost at the end of my piece you’ll see that it’s all connected – artists are our industry including the neurodivergent. We need to fund so many more experiences like mine to build the knowledge bases I’m talking about. We also need to be allowed to remain creative practitioners as well as developing such vital sector support skills.
So in the last round of DYCP I submitted an application too, feeling not a little unlike Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It’s a bit like buying a lottery ticket now that I think of it, but as Susan Jones says we artists need the chance to dream – preferably funded.
On all the above, watch this space!