ART THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR

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"ART THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR"

Like many of the arts projects I have developed over the last 30 years, "Art Through the Front Door" [ATTFD] started with me musing: "Wouldn't it be a good idea if...".  In this case the idea was to create a touring exhibition of art by disabled people.  I had already gained a lot of experience in visiting and working with Special Schools, and managed 2 teams of interdisciplinary staff supporting special education, when I was Principal Media Resources Adviser for the Inner London Education Authority [ILEA]. My father had a disability so I had a first hand knowledge of what it felt like to be disabled.  I had organised a major exhibition to celebrate the "Year of the Disabled" at the County Hall, London, which included a small display of artworks by disabled people, some of which I had purchased for my own art collection.

I started researching this concept in 1992 by consulting a range or organisations and individuals.  These included the South Bank Exhibition Touring Centre, Eastern Arts Board, the National Disability Arts Form, the London Disability Arts Forum, Disability Arts In London Magazine [DAIL], Eastern Arts Board, Artlink East, Suffolk Artlink, the Minories Gallery, Stoke City Museum and Art Gallery, the Diorama Centre in London and Braintree District Council.

The general advice ranged from "good idea but impossible to achieve, so abandon it now" to " restrict it to 2 or 3 venues and you might have a chance".

Undeterred, I wrote a detailed business plan and managed to get a small grant from Eastern Arts Board to do further research and development.  I formed a small Steering Group made up of local and regional disabled artists, galleries and regional disability organisations. We decided that the Exhibition would feature visual art from groups of disabled people working in the Eastern Region as well as individual disabled artists working in different media across the country. 

A major inspiration was the Arts Council Report 'In Through the Front Door', which identified the need for improving opportunities for disabled people to enjoy and participate in the Arts.  The prime motivating force of the exhibition was therefore one of equal opportunities - for disabled artists to exhibit and sell their work, and to develop their careers by bring their achievements to wider public attention.  The exhibition title 'Art Through the Front Door' was based on this Report.

When ArtLink East was disbanded and our first Exhibition Venue dropped out, the Project was developed under the aegis of Braintree District Council on a sound legal footing, and the Diorama Centre Gallery came forward as the launching pad for the Tour.

SELECTION OF ARTISTS

Applications were sought through national advertising and direct mailing. The Selection Panel met in June 1994, with members of the Steering Group being joined by 2 invited selectors. The emphasis of the selection was on choosing artists and groups/organisations, based on the quality of their work.  The aim was to bring together a body of contemporary work which reflected a range of approaches, media and subject matter.

The final selection was made up of 3 organisations/projects, 7 painters, 3 photographers, 1 sculptor, 1 textile artist,1 video artist and 1 installation artist.

Once we had the artists on board I began to contact potential venues through direct contact and adverts in trade journals and through interviews with me on radio and tv.  The difficulty was in developing a timetable whereby the exhibition could be transferred from venue to venue without a gap, each venue being responsible for this transfer as part of their contract with the Project.

All venues would be charged for the Exhibition and encouraged to organise local publicity and the organisation of workshops and talks involving some of the exhibiting artists themselves.

Over a period of time I was able to secure 16 separate venues for the Exhibition, mainly in London, the East and the South of England, spread over a 3-year period 1995-97.

Drawing by Gabrielle Wheeler, award winning artist with learnig difficulties.

ARTISTS' SEMINAR

It was important that the artists themselves should have has much involvement as possible in the way their work was presented. To this end, all contributing artists were invited to a seminar in October 1994 at the Diorama Centre, at which decisions were made about the detailed organisation, design and presentation of the exhibition.  All artists were paid expenses in addition to an 'exhibition payment right' fee for their involvement.  Works could be for sale, with 75% going to the artists and 25% to the exhibiting venues. Over the period many works were sold and artists replaced these with new pieces.

One of the exhibitors, Keith Armstrong, designed the logo and cover of the full-colour catalogue, which, together with an audio catalogue and braille labels [produced by the RNIB], was financed through a generous sponsorship by Eastern Group plc.  Other funders included the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, Eastern Arts Board, Artlink East, Braintree District Council, Colchester Borough Council, Lloyds Bank plc, the Esme Fairburn Charitable Trust, Braintree District Arts Council, Barclays Bank plc and the Sir Jules Thorn Charitable Trust.

EXHIBITION OPENING AND TOUR

Cover of DAIL Magazine

The exhibition opened on 16 February 2095 with a packed preview at the Diorama Centre Gallery, London.  The London Disability Arts Forum promoted the exhibition by publishing a special issue of its DAIL Magazine. 

Following this, the exhibition toured to 15 further venues, including Braintree Town Hall Gallery and Museum, the Hermitage Gallery, the Usher Gallery, the Towner Gallery, and the Benham Gallery.  In addition we used several non-gallery spaces, e.g., Colchester Hospital, Colchester Leisure Centre.  In all cases the venues were inspected for their accessibility for disabled people, and in some cases improvements were made for wheelchair access and disabled toilets,  At the end of the exhibition tour, all unsold works were returned to the artists.

This project was not without its controversy and criticism, mainly through its press and media coverage.  For example, some people objected to the its very existence, arguing that it was marginalising disabled artists.  Also I personally met with some criticism for the fact that I was not myself disabled.  However the overwhelming feedback was extremely positive, with people being both moved and enlightened.  For the artists involved it was a major boost to their artistic careers.