How do we make systemic change in an often resistant industry? Jessica Walton reflects on an empowering symposium on disability and the arts
What defines an emerging artist? At what point do we stop emerging, and become established artists instead? I thought it was about whether my work has been published or performed, or how confident I felt as an artist, but eventually you realise that “emerging” is an arbitrary line that moves all the time and doesn’t really have a definition.
Perhaps I’ll feel less like an emerging artist once I stop feeling confused by the arts scene in Victoria, and all its various players. The national and state funding bodies, arts organisations, advisory boards and government departments shape the way the arts sector functions where I live, and in particular the way it relates to artists from marginalised communities. It’s daunting when you don’t know what you need to know, and you don’t know who to ask.
There are practical consequences to a lack of knowledge about the industry. Some of these organisations direct and control the flow of significant amounts of money to artists. If you have limited time and feel overwhelmed and confused, understanding what these organisations want from you when filling out grant applications is a nightmare. As writer, educator and activist Jax Jacki Brown pointed out at the Fair Play Symposium run by Diversity Arts Australia in February this year, emerging artists from marginalised communities can have trouble accessing funds to make art:
I think it’s often so hard to apply for those big grants because they’re so arduous and inaccessible, and they require you to know how to speak the language of grant assessors and of governments, which a lot of marginalised people just struggle to do, to have the skills and have the space and energy to spend weeks or months doing all that stuff.
I’ve tried so many times to apply for funding, and often I don’t even complete the application because I’m so daunted and befuddled by it. I’m exhausted by juggling applications with work, parenting, health issues and medical appointments. My chronic pain and mental illness, and the medications I take for both, can cause significant impairment of executive functioning. I’ll spend weeks trying to get an application together, but in the end the deadline races by me. And then I think: “I’ll figure it out next time.”
That’s why, when I was asked to be a “citizen journalist” at the Fair Play Symposium, I was thrilled. Here was a chance to attend an event I could never otherwise afford, where I’d get to listen to experienced artists, leaders and decision makers talk about their experiences in the arts, and maybe untangle some of my confusion about the world I was now a part of. I’d never heard of paid citizen journalist roles at events like this before, but when I read the requirements I was excited by the concept; I’d be live tweeting over the two days, and afterwards delivering feedback to the symposium along with the other citizen journalists.
Introducing our writer in residence @clairegcoleman plus citizen journalists @maganmagan9 @PollyannaR @jesshealywalton -they will digest and feedback their thoughts and impressions. #FairPlayCreative #DiversityArtsAu
— Diversity Arts (@DiversityArtsAu) February 25, 2019
It was so good to be in a space where marginalised communities were speaking truth to power. There’s a deep, exhausting self-doubt that comes from so rarely seeing people like yourself represented in the fields you are trying to break into. It’s confirmed by the ableism and lack of accessibility disabled people experience every day, and by the stigma, stereotypes and confusion around various impairments and illnesses. If the world at large doesn’t understand or include our community in day to day life, why would the world of the arts be any different? And if they won’t include us, how can we make them?
I felt validated by the issues that disabled artists raised at this conference. For example, after calling out the inaccessibility of grant applications, Jax Jacki Brown suggested ways of making them more accessible by having support around how to do the applications, as well as improving the funding of accessibility in artworks themselves.
It made me reflect on the two applications that have felt easy and accessible to me: the applications for the Write-ability and Publishability fellowships for disabled writers from Writers Victoria. I was able to answer the questions on the application form without much difficulty, and the resulting confidence boost helped me get the application in on time. I was awarded a fellowship in both cases, though I would have counted even finishing the application process as a success. It would be nice to think that one day the Australia Council and Creative Victoria – and other arts organisations and funding bodies – might do the work to make their grant application process easier and more accessible for everyone, too.
Then @AgentBowditch added that if artists and arts orgs don’t know HOW to make their orgs and their art more accessible, they can pick up the phone to @ArtsAccessVic and find out! Look around for the experts, they’re already there. #FairPlayCreative #DiversityArtsAU
— Jessica Walton 🧜♀️ (@JessHealyWalton) February 27, 2019
The sheer volume of new information over the two days of the Fair Play Symposium was overwhelming, but because the sessions were recorded I was able to re-watch some of them online later to help things sink in. For example, I didn’t fully understand everything CEO of the UK’s Creative Diversity Network (CDN) Deborah Williams said about diversity standards and legislation in the UK, but I understood enough to know that she is an absolute powerhouse bringing about meaningful change at an industrial level.
The CDN collects and publishes diversity data to help keep UK broadcasters focused and accountable when it comes to diversity. It was a shock to hear Deborah say that here in Australia we’re about 20 years behind the UK. After her keynote speech, she had a session in conversation with Caroline Bowditch, the executive director of Arts Access Victoria. Caroline also noted that there were huge differences between the UK and Australian approach to diversity in the arts. Later she expanded on this point:
It’s been really interesting for me coming back into the Australian context, because I’ve lived in a country were equality has been a priority in the Arts scene for at least the last ten years. And when I say it’s a priority, we’re talking about serious investment… Falling in Love With Frida cost the equivalent of $150,000 to produce, which is kind of unheard of in this country for work made by disabled artists… I think we need to up the significant investment in the work of disabled artists and those of us that are in the margins.
It was disheartening to hear that my country is so behind on diversity, and that we are underfunding work by disabled artists. Then again, it was good to understand the reality of the situation, and to see two disabled industry leaders highlighting it and talking about solutions.
I love this photo! Deborah Williams is talking with @AgentBowditch now. Two absolute badasses, and leaders in their fields! I’m in awe and just soaking up their amazing wisdom. #FairPlayCreative #DiversityArtsAu pic.twitter.com/MiJMVBzqno
— Jessica Walton 🧜♀️ (@JessHealyWalton) February 26, 2019
As Jax Jacki Brown said:
For artists with a disability, we’re just not funded to the same level that they are in the UK, for example. There is no way we could get the funding to make the show that Caroline made, here, for one show… we’re all living intersectional, exhausted identities within a system that is perpetually trying to disempower and oppress us, and I’m sick of arguing for our place within that system.
Fiona Tuomy, artistic director of The Other Film Festival (Australia’s first international disability film festival), told the audience at Fair Play Festival that there’s a lot happening in the diversity and inclusion space in Australia, but there’s still a long way to go:
…we haven’t been able to get to the core to make really systemic change… I suppose at this actual point in time, I feel like we should all find each other and just keep pushing and pushing and make sure those doors do not close again; then we get to the centre and that centre changes completely.
There were plenty of suggestions from disabled artists about how to bring about systemic change. Caroline Bowditch and Jax Jacki Brown both suggested that arts organisations who don’t include access and disability in their priorities should lose their funding. Writer, performer and Quippings co-founder Kath Duncan went further by suggesting quotas, which I agree are necessary to bring about meaningful, industrial change:
…if we are talking about how to bring diversity into all arts orgs from big to little – and I’m just going to talk about disability here at this point – if you accept public money, you should be tied to, and in fact lose your public money, if you don’t dedicate 20 per cent of all your productions, 20 per cent of all your staff, 20 per cent of all your audience, 20 per cent of all your funding to programs, productions, shows, works, et cetera by Deaf and disabled people. Full stop.
There was one particularly significant moment for me. The leader of an arts organisation implied that some kinds of accessibility were too difficult, and that employing disabled people wasn’t a priority. In the audience questions, Weave Movement Theatre director Janice Florence asked whether there were any disabled people on the board of that arts organisation. The answer was “no”. It was a powerful reminder of the question Genevieve Grieves, manager of the First Peoples department at Museums Victoria, had asked at the very beginning of the symposium:
We are here today to talk about the deep disparities that still exist… who is at the table, who is on the board? Where is real power held, and who is wielding it?
As an emerging artist I hadn’t really thought about who was on what boards, and yet it became clear to me over the two days of the symposium that people from marginalised communities could bring about systemic change by “getting to the centre” via a board, as Fiona Tuomy put it. There was discussion about the Victorian Government’s commitment to ensuring equal representation of women on government boards, and I wondered if they would ever make any similar commitment to First Nations people, the disabled community, the LGBTIQA+ community, and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities.
After the symposium, I looked up the boards of various arts organisations, trying to get a sense of what kind of representation exists already. I couldn’t see anyone who was proudly identifying themselves as a part of our disability community in their bio. It made me wonder: could I join a board one day? What kind of qualifications would someone need to be on a board? What was the process for being chosen? And if not a board, what other avenues were there for people from marginalised communities who wanted to bring about industrial change in Australia?
In her keynote speech, Deborah Williams mentioned that in Australia we have the Screen Diversity Inclusion Network (SDIN), a group of broadcasters and industry bodies that is drawing on the work of the CDN in the UK to improve on and off-screen diversity here in Australia. Later I read up on their work and found out that they had recently started an award to honour diverse representation in television. One of my favourite Australian TV shows with disability and illness rep, Homecoming Queens, was nominated, and an amazing kids’ show called Little J and Big Cuz, which has both Indigenous and disability rep, won the award.
When I was co-writing an episode for the Australian television series Get Krack!n about disability last year, it would have been good to know that there was a body like the SDIN working to improve diversity in the Australian screen industry, and that their work was based on a highly successful international model. Perhaps it wouldn’t have had a direct effect on my day-to-day work, but there’s something important about knowing I’m writing into a space where industrial change is going on behind the scenes to make things easier and better for people like me.
Giving emerging artists from marginalized communities the opportunity to be at events like the Fair Play Symposium and build their industry knowledge is important. In the wake of this event, I have begun to think of my professional development as an emerging artist in the same way I used to think about it as a newly graduated school teacher: it needs frequent attention so that I don’t feel so clueless all the time. It’s not enough for me to do writing courses and music workshops; I need to be at events where I can learn where I sit in the broader scheme of things, and who is making industry-wide, systemic change happen.
I’m glad Diversity Arts Australia decided to invite artists from marginalised communities to the Fair Play Symposium as citizen journalists, and I’d like to see this taken up as standard practice by arts events organisers across Australia. If I hadn’t been a citizen journalist, I would have been watching the livestream from home. Because I am often housebound because of health, or stuck at home with parenting duties, live streaming (and making a recording of that live stream available after the event) makes me feel welcomed and included. It was particularly lovely when Fiona Tuomy gave a shoutout to those who were watching at home on the livestream during her panel:
There are a lot of people that for various reasons can’t get into a space, and particularly members of our community who are homebound and/or bedridden, and I know some of those people may be watching this livestream, so I acknowledge you.
I’d love to see event organisers consider housebound/bedridden disabled people as candidates for a citizen journalist position, watching the event over livestream, commenting on it on social media, and providing feedback with the help of technology.
There were so many amazing artists and speakers at the Fair Play symposium, and I encourage you all to watch the recorded livestream from the event and then look up and support their work. As Fiona Tuomy said at the symposium, “It’s important to have community and to find those people that we can reach out to, and that we can support each other and build.” Perhaps the bridge between being an emerging and established artist is exactly this: feeling less confused about the arts world and our place in it by becoming connected to a community of artists who support each other and build together.