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The National Disability Arts Collection & Archive:

The Story So Far…

DAO reported on the latest innovative capital project to come out of Holton Lee, at the beginning of 2005. Colin Hambrook attended a steering group meeting to find out how the project is moving on.

A summary

The development of a National Disability Arts Collection & Archive at Holton Lee has evolved out of more than six years of planning, consultation and visioning. The pressing need prompting its creation is that, at present, there is no organisation systematically recording and cataloguing material relating to Disability Arts. The survival of much of this work is entirely dependent on being preserved by a local organisation or private individuals. Those wishing to research the contemporary Disability Arts movement are also hampered by a lack of coordinated information linking this material around the country.

There have been many radical arts movements, whose relevance has only really been appreciated by a wider audience once society has had time to digest their value. Disability Arts has reached a cross-roads where its importance is beginning to be understood outside of the disability community. Certainly, at least issues around the arts and disabled people are reaching the headlines more and more. Partly, in effect to do with the impact of the DDA. For example there are still perhaps barriers which prevent disabled people from going to art college - but in principle the acceptance of disabled students is not totally frowned upon, as it was 15 years ago.

Alongside the critical fact that disabled people, generally, have a much shorter life expectancy than the rest of society, it is extremely important that we lay the foundations now for a record of the events, the magic, the moving, the magnificent genius that has taken place and passed on.

top disability art works

The steering group comprises of a mix of disabled arts development workers and artists who have been asked to discuss some of the parameters for the project. We discussed who are the artists? What are the artefacts? When was the time that the movement took off?

The general consensus was that 1981 - the first International Year of Disabled People - was a key moment when disabled people with a critical interest in the arts began to rally together and make their collective voices heard.

We tried to limit ourselves to the first ten years - up until the beginning of the 1990s. We felt that artefacts, photos, records etc. of events that were key milestones in Disability Arts history, such as the Telethon demonstrations - are important to include in the archive. We talked about putting such documents into context, by juxtaposing them against the first Tate Modern sculpture exhibition of works curated specifically to be touched.

We need to collect key works from disabled artists who have died - before the memory of their contribution is lost. Poets and performers like Simon Brisenden, Ellen Wilkie and Sue Napolitano. The evocative portraits of photographer Samena Rana, and deaf visual artist Trevor Landell. Other important artists mentioned were Gioya Steinke, Audrey Barker, Steve Cribbs and Adam Reynolds, who sadly died suddenly very recently - only a few days before he was to take part in a major piece of performance art outside the Tate Modern on London's South Bank.

We talked about the impact of Ian Stanton's songs on a huge number of disabled people coming into the movement. In particular we mentioned the Tragic but Brave show, which travelled the country and brought Ian together with Johnny Crescendo and Barbara Lisicki.

And of course who could forget the powerful Spasticus/Autisticus by Ian Drury, banned by the BBC, which was one of the first disability arts pop songs that broke through into mainstream culture. Graeae Theatre Company and their first director Nabil Shaban have to be there. The 1981 production Side Show was cited as the first piece of theatre they produced where they began to come into their own.

Another iconic show from the early nineties was The Lawnmowers The Big Sex Show. A group of learning disabled people dressed as giant condoms - caused quite a stir at the time. David O'Toole, was a key disabled dancer leading the way for a new inclusive movement language. It was felt that directors and writers should be included, as well as artists. And that failures need to be recorded as well as well as successes.

There was a list of specific pieces of visual artwork: Mary Duffy's Venus De Milo, Alison Lapper's Angel, Nancy Willis' Taking leave, Tony Heaton's Shaken not Stirred, Crippen's Disability Rights Cartoons, David Hevey's photographs The Creatures that Time Forgot.

the future

We need to find out what kinds of ideas the wider community of disabled and non-disabled people - particularly those working in the arts, as artists, or as administrators, etc. - have of what kinds of artworks, artefacts and relevant documents should be kept for posterity?

Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre, Britain's foremost theatre company of people with physical and sensory impairments, put it very clearly when she said: We are part of a fantastically diverse art movement and it is crucial that this is remembered and recorded for us and the generations of artists to come.

Let us know what you think? Who would have your vote? What artworks would you like to see saved in order that disabled people in the future will understand something of the lives of disabled people in the latter decades of the twentieth century?

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