Square Peg – the disability arts programme breaking barriers

What would an arts programme look like from the perspective of disabled artists?

That’s what Square Peg sets out to discover, Artlink’s disability and diversity arts programme supported by Hull 2017.

This year-long programme of exhibitions, interventions and other events is tackling the stigma around disability arts, revisiting (and building on) Artlink’s roots as an arts centre dedicated to access for all. So far it’s created a whole host of opportunities, allowing disabled artists to exhibit and promote their work and giving audiences with disabilities the opportunity to have their voices heard.

Above all else, Square Peg is raising awareness of the barriers that disabled people face. The project aims to bring people together, creating a better understanding of what it is to be from a diverse community.

For audiences as well as artists, accessing the arts can be problematic. Finding out what’s on or applying for opportunities to share your work can become huge barriers, creating a world where disabled artists and audiences are separate from the mainstream. Square Peg is trying to address this imbalance, creating opportunities that are wholly accessible and open specifically to disabled artists. Rachel Elm, manager of Square Peg, explains that “What we’re trying to do is fulfil that need for disabled artists to have opportunities available to them.”

And Square Peg is certainly doing that. First-rate exhibitions like the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursay: Shortlist, Oliver MacDonald’s Dog Basket Baboon and Anita Corbin’s Visible Girls: Revisited are proving that high-quality, inclusive arts are achievable and popular with audiences.

Anita Corbin at Visible Girls: Revisited © Jerome Whittingham

Artist Anita Corbin at Visible Girls: Revisited exhibition. Photo © Jerome Whittingham.

“We want to try and impact the delivery of other arts organisations and hopefully have an impact on the city as a whole,” Rachel says. The Disability Arts Network, an initiative already run by Artlink, is feeding into Square Peg, bringing together service users, disability organisations, disabled artists and the wider community to consult on how to make events accessible.

The Square Peg focus group is making this happen too. “This group is identifying what the gaps are locally and where there are access problems,” Rachel explains. “They’re going to try and fill that gap and create their own project.”

What’s emboldening about Square Peg is its commitment to the development of disabled artists, throughout the duration of the project. For some of the artists involved, opportunities to exhibit professionally have been limited in the past; through Square Peg, these artists are being offered invaluable project management skills and exhibition experience that will prepare them for a future working in the industry.

“We don’t want that idea that disability arts and quality are mutually exclusive. Some of the stuff we’re putting on is riskier than we’ve ever done before.”
– Rachel Elm, Square Peg manager

The programme of events for the rest of the year certainly looks set to be daring. John Walter’s Alien Sex Capsule, a multimedia, multi-sensory and immersive show exploring the relationship between visual culture and HIV today, is guaranteed to be bold and provocative.

But the programme isn’t just limited to Artlink’s building, over in HU5. Square Peg will be showing the rest of the city what they’ve been getting up to when they bring their exhibition Centre of Attention to a city-centre location.

This collaboration sees the Alternative Limb Project, local film makers Fly Girl and model and diversity advocate Kelly Knox come together to create an exhibition of stunning, alternative limbs.

Taking the programme beyond 2017, Square Peg artist-in-residence Jason Wilsher-Mills will round off his nine-month residency with a solo show in January 2018 that looks set to impress. A digital artist and painter, he is fascinated with memory – a focus both personal and resonant. Jason will be running a series of workshops at the end of August to feed into this work, engaging the wider community.

Square Peg is also collaborating with Engage, a leading advocacy and training network for gallery education, to host a conference rethinking diversity at the end of November. The conference will strike right at the heart of current debates on equality, diversity and access, with bursaries on offer for those most under-represented in the arts as well as those who might otherwise be unable to afford a place. It’s clear that, whether it’s through the artistic programme or the events that surround it, Square Peg and Engage are actively encouraging people to get their voices heard.

And as Rachel knows all too well, these dialogues are crucial. “We need to be having these conversations. The disabled and non-disabled communities need to be having these conversations about what we can do, and what we aren’t doing and we need to feel comfortable in having what can be quite difficult conversations sometimes.” Now that we’re over half-way through 2017, it’s heartening to see that through Square Peg’s focus groups, meetings, workshops and the quality, thought-provoking art they’re programming, more people are starting to discuss diversity in proactive, empowered conversations here in Hull.

Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary Shortlist © Jerome Whittingham

Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary Shortlist exhibition. Photo © Jerome Whittingham.

Rachel recognises the impact of this so far too. “We’re putting on accessible events in a way we’ve never done before,” she tells me. “We use audio description and BSL in ways we’ve never done before – it’s exciting seeing different people coming in. We’re seeing people that maybe haven’t been in an art gallery before, and we’re noticing that people are coming back.”

If you want to get involved, you can – there’s still plenty to see and do with Square Peg. You can join a Disability Arts Network meeting and share your experiences, or ask how you can make your events more accessible. You can attend an exhibition, view the work and chat with staff and artists at Artlink, because as Rachel makes clear, “It’s the responsibility of everybody, no matter who you are, no matter what you do, to have that knowledge, to create access for everyone.”

Square Peg’s current exhibition Visible Girls: Revisited is on until 11 Aug, and their next show Alien Sex Capsule runs from 18 Aug – 29 Sep.

The next Disability Arts Network meeting will take place on 26 Jul. Find out more and register your interest.