Sonny Nwachukwu is Unlimited’s freelance representative on the Freelance Task Force* – and a former Unlimited trainee. He’s been emailing our senior producer, Jo Verrent, with questions and answers to help us be the best we can be – as he says: ‘I know Unlimited are always open to new ideas, it’s why I loved working there.’ This is an edited version of their conversation so far…
* The Freelance Task Force is a sector-wide arts initiative to employ and recognise the value of freelancers to the arts, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when many freelance workers lost their opportunities, incomes and existing contracts.
Sonny Nwachukwu (SN): I’ve been having some conversations with some freelancers who are in the majority black and disabled and there does seem to be a common theme around trust – trust regarding big art organisations. I know Unlimited isn’t an organisation yet, but if organisations and projects really want to do more work with these artists, how do they regain trust?
Jo Verrent (JV): Good question, and one I’d really like to know the answer to. What do you think we can do? What do the artists you are speaking with think organisations and projects should do?
Advice on applying
SN: I know Unlimited’s capacity is stretched but some funders offer ‘advice meetings’ about putting in an application. These are sometimes Zoom calls for up to 30 mins, for example. For me, coming in from a non-art world, applications are a different ball game and that extra support helped me break through a barrier. Something like that could help Unlimited reach a wider range of diverse people. But the question is, would there be capacity in the Unlimited team?
JV: We don’t do this at the moment, but we have done this in different geographic areas in the past. We are planning to across the summer for disabled artists in some groups we feel are underrepresented within our current artists and applicants. Currently we are planning some for learning disabled artists, artists who are blind or have visual impairment and also disabled trans artists.
We plan to talk to people online in small groups or 1-1 depending on what people prefer with hosts from these groups present too. That’s the formal stuff, but we’d encourage anyone who wants to find out more (even if not in those groups) to talk to us and we’ll do our best to do whatever we can to talk them through how to apply. What we can’t do is look at individual Expression of Interest applications and comment as we have to remain impartial. Once we have the shortlist, we offer up to 1 hour of support for every shortlisted applicant so that they can put in the best application possible. This is a stretch for the team but absolutely worth it.
SN: I think the advice sessions could work well – and it would be good to offer these to black artists [see later for more on terminology]. It would be interesting to see how many black people applied for Unlimited grants, the pass rate and also to see how many new black applicants have been applying each year.
JV: That I can tell you! We recently published lots of data on who applies and who gets funded, and also the equal opportunties data in relation to our micro awards.
The ethnicity of applicants applying to the open rounds varies round to round, with an average of 79% of applications coming from artists who define themselves as white (out of all those who provide an answer). We felt this wasn’t very balanced, so across the last open set of awards and critically within our strategic awards since then, 70% have been awarded to artists who identify as white and 30% to those who identify as not white. Within our micro awards so far, 28% have gone to non-white artists.
But we want to do more. In the next open round we have some R&D awards funded by the Bagri Foundation, specifically focused on artists who identify as Asian or from the Asian diaspora, and we’ll be running an event this summer to directly promote these.
SN: Over the two years since leaving my traineeship with Unlimited and being in the sector, I’ve increasingly felt that has been my ‘calling’ to really reach these groups. I feel I’m reaching people now with a more qualitative approach than quantitative. From personal experience, big groups without constructive smaller groups to fall back on, create layers, and a lot of additional navigating which is just off-putting.
JV: Hopefully our plan to do days where people can sign up for small group sessions or 1-1 sessions will help with this too? And let’s talk about whether you can do some additional outreach for us – paid, of course!
Promotion of access support
SN: I’m finding that most artists don’t know about this, even when funders offer it. I think this need to be clearer for disabled artists – I’m hearing many stories of dyslexic artists, for example, really struggling to put in applications only to get a rejection and not knowing there is help.
JV: We do offer this but I think we can do more to make it more obvious. We’ve made access a bigger feature in our ‘call out’ video and I will ensure part of our blog series this summer has one which links to access, clearly explaining what is available for whom.
Feedback on applications when rejected
SN: I spoke to an artist who said the phrase ‘other application preferred’ has put her off applying for anything for the last 3 years. As a black disabled artist that didn’t know about access support, she’d struggled to put in an application in the first place, and her application spoke about her experiences as a black disabled person. She took this statement as saying that her work is not the type of work that funder funds or is interested in. When in reality it usually means there is no money left. I was wondering if Unlimited uses that phrase and if so, if that has been spoken about before, and if there have been any conversations about that around wording?
JV: I don’t think we use it at Unlimited, but I’ve seen it used in by many funders as a shorthand, and yes, you are right, it means there are not enough funds available. I’ve never thought about it from this perspective before, but you are absolutely right, it could be misinterpreted. I’m definitely going to ensure we never use it in the future!
SN: For Unlimited I remember the rejection method being very courteous and thorough. I was wondering what if Unlimited arranged for meetings with artists that were close to being funded and if you have conversations on how to improve their application for next time?
JV: We have two stages – Expression of Interest and then the full application stage for those shortlisted. For those not shortlisted at Expression of Interest stage, we don’t provide feedback – simply because we don’t have anything to provide. The panellists long list the work they feel best meets the criteria, and don’t provide feedback on the rest as there are so many applicants at this stage.
Last time it was around 170 people, so our limited capacity means we can’t offer 1-1 critiques of applications. But what we can do this time is to be really public about this and be open about the most frequent reasons that people didn’t get through.
For those shortlisted and discussed, but not funded, we do offer both personal feedback and ongoing support. Feedback is offered in written and/or face to face conversation – most often people choose both. We also push them to other funding opportunities, write letters of support and they go in the alumni so have access to training and development.
Language and identity
SN: I fully understand the assumed rarity of black disabled artists – but they are there. The language is complex though. Something that’s been a conversation on the Freelance Task Force is terms like BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) and POC (People of Colour). They are too broad and also don’t recognise the magnitude of differences in Black, Asian, and other minority groups and sadly also the racism within these groups.
JV: I’m watching the language debate with interest. I’d love to use better terms. Let’s talk more about this for sure. I also wonder if also many people struggle with the dual identity and feel by identifying with one ‘group’, they can’t the other – due to racism in disability groups and ableism in black groups? It’s a tough one.
SN: Yes, you’re totally right regarding dual identity. Once I learned more about the social model, only then I could accept the word ‘disabled’ even though I’ve been cut halfway through interviews for stuttering etc., so faced barriers myself in the past. I think it is a type of ‘coming out of the closet’ and we somehow have to normalise the word ‘disabled’ and not be seen as a ‘bad word’.