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Can we be artists?

With Headway East London

a group of people sit in a row on a stage and an audience of people are facing them with their backs to the camera
16 Feb 2022
3 min read

Who decides what art is? We're taking a look back at our panel talk, Can we be artists? with our community collaborator Headway East London.

We spoke to Laura Owens, Director of Development at Headway East London, a charity supporting people affected by brain injury, to reflect on the evening and explore some of the important questions discussed. 


What was the panel talk about?

Curated by Headway East London and artists from our studio Submit to Love, the event was first and foremost an open space for debate and connection between like-minded souls and the people whose minds we hoped to change. Whilst our initial focus was around the perspectives of our members as artists with disabilities, we also wanted a broader conversation about accessibility and equity within the art world

To make this possible, we had an interactive panel discussion between Chris Miller (Artist, Submit to Love), Ali Eisa (Learning and Participation Manager, Autograph), Kate Adams (CEO, Project Artworks), David Tovey (Senior Producer, Arts & Homelessness International) and Will Gompertz (Director of Arts, Barbican Centre). 

Over the course of the evening, we invited each of our five speakers to answer a question selected by the artists of Submit to Love, before opening this up for wider discussion between the panel and audience. These five questions were: What is art for and why do you do art? Does art need to be beautiful? Is everyone a potential artist? Who decides what art is? Whose art should be displayed in galleries? The aim of the event was to create a space for artists, practitioners and professionals from across the field to contribute and reflect together. 

‘The art world says the right things about disability and including people with disability, but in practice what people experience is not that. Why is that and how can we overcome that?‘
Chris Miller, Submit to Love artist
A person has their back to the camera and is writing on a large piece of paper which is hanging on a wall

What inspired the thinking behind the event?

To be honest, this event was a long time coming for us! Our studio, Submit to Love, has been discussing some of these key questions and themes for a few years now and the Barbican’s recent exhibition Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty really proved the catalyst in bringing the conversation to a wider audience.

We were lucky to be invited to discuss Dubuffet’s work with the curatorial team and respond artistically through articles and workshops. What stood out to us was his coining of the term “art brut” and his championing of work created in settings such as psychiatric hospitals and institutions. It sparked lots of animated (and sometimes heated!) debate around how we talk about and term this work, and who gets to make those decisions.

Over the course of nearly a year, our artists regularly met to plan the structure, content, speakers and guest list for the event. Whilst we wanted it to be open to all, we were keen to ensure that we had a broad range of perspectives involved, so we were thrilled to secure our talented panellists.

We wanted to start a conversation centred around the most basic and fundamental questions about art – simple, accessible questions that are the entry point into weighty, powerful topics – and which would bring the unique perspectives of the artists working in our studio to the front.

‘There was a fantastic mix of different people, coming from different angles and experiences.‘
Chris, Submit to Love artist
A piece of white paper is on the table with hand writing on it and pens to the left hand side

What reactions did you notice from the audience about the questions raised?

In some ways, these are age-old questions that have been debated for hundreds of years. But the panellists involved brought new insights which created great energy in the room. The questions from audience members were incredibly thoughtful and engaged and really tapped into the urgency of the event. 

‘Everyone is a potential artist. But art, like anything, whether it’s maths, or it’s writing or it’s walking – it has to be worked at. Who decides what art is? I'd say it’s up to the viewer.‘
Affiong, Submit to Love artist
Two people sit around a table talking to each other, with their arms on the table. Two people stand behind them having a conversation

What are the key things you have taken away from the event?

If there’s one key takeaway, it’s that it is absolutely vital to hear from people with lived experience. Every person involved spoke their own truth, and shared a perspective which is entirely personal, and these insights add so much to our collective understanding.

We were lucky to have a visual minute-taker join us on the night who captured some of the fascinating main points discussed and we’re definitely keen to interrogate some of these when making future plans. You can view the visual minutes here.

A cartoon drawing of two people holding up a sign that says can we be artists

What is your hope for arts organisations and institutions who want to be a part of creating a truly open, accessible and exciting arts world?

To lead by example, this must really start at the top. A particular win for us was having Will Gompertz join the panel because one point we often returned to was that of power dynamics. There are so many people doing incredible work in the art world, but if they are not recognised and respected by those in high positions at large institutions, then we can only make limited progress.

Collaboration is so important to us at Headway East London and Submit to Love, and we could all benefit from working together to create change. We’d welcome more institutions seeking out the experiences and talents of artists and organisations like ours when they embark on this journey. Listening goes a long way, but doing so in a meaningful and equitable way is still quite rare. Sometimes this can be to tackle big questions like in we did at the event, but it can also be about what institutions can do to make people feel welcome when they step inside the space.

The more opportunities we create for discussion, the better, and we hope this is the first of many from Submit to Love and everyone involved.

A person sits in the middle of two other people on a stage with a microphone in their hand, they are talking directly to a group of people sat in front of them
‘The first thing they have to do is have disabled access. Some buildings aren’t accessible at all! That’s the first hurdle, to feel welcome in a space.‘
Affiong, Submit to Love artist

If you want to hear more about our discussion with Headway East London, we've released a guest episode as part of our Nothing Concrete podcast and keep your eyes out for future events with our community collaborators.

Headway East London is part of the Community Collaborator programme, an in-depth 3-year partnership between the Barbican and a local community organisation working on a range of projects that encourage two-way exchange, collaboration and learning. You can read more about our partnership here.

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