Becoming an ‘Irregular’ Art School

Collaborating with learning disabled artists to innovate inclusive arts development and education

A mixture of colour splashes on a black backdrop

A new project at the University of Leeds is seeking to boost the recognition and celebration of learning disabled artists. Working closely with Leeds-based disability art studio Pyramid, it’s investigating ways to better support their professional artistic development. Lead researcher Jade French outlines the innovative and experimental ways the project brings together the worlds of arts practice and social care support.

I am an artist.

This simple yet powerful statement drives a recent campaign by Leeds-based learning disability art studio Pyramid. It’s a sharp reminder of how, throughout their lives, learning disabled people have a myriad of labels, classifications and diagnoses attached to them – but the label of ‘artist’ isn’t often one of them.

Recent decades have seen a growing interest in ‘inclusive art’. This term defines a global creative practice whereby learning disabled artists create work with the support of professional facilitators. Typically, this happens through specialist supported art studios like Pyramid.

Learning disabled artists are garnering ever more mainstream attention: showcasing their practice at high-profile cultural events and major institutions. Judith Scott exhibited work at the 57th Venice Biennale and now features work in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection; Nnena Kalu exhibited at Tate Modern and had a major solo show at Glasgow International 2018; and more recently, Project Art Works, a collective of neurodiverse artists have been have been shortlisted for the Turner Prize.

It’s clear that a career as an artist is absolutely possible for learning disabled people. But such success is often precariously dependent on building and sustaining an intricate network of specialised cross-sector support.

With support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, in 2021 we began a new research project titled Irregular Art Schools to address these very issues. Over the next two and a half years we are experimenting with new methods to support the development of learning disabled artists in the Leeds City Region. We’re also working alongside social workers to bridge the gap across art and social care. Cross-sector thinking and collaboration are at the heart of this study.

A mixed history of support and segregation

Two people viewing art in the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds.

The city of Leeds has a particularly vibrant history of supporting inclusive art through Pyramid. I’m lucky to have such a rich context for my research. Pyramid is a charity, dedicated to investing in people with a learning disability through the ‘discovery, development and disruption of the arts’. It’s one of the longest established inclusive arts studios in the UK, providing artists with collaborative group studio sessions. This includes a programme for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, as well as one-on-one creative support.

The Pyramid Arts Team stood before a wall featuring artwork.

Significantly, Pyramid was first set up in 1989 as a volunteer-run arts club for patients at Meanwood Hospital. This long-stay residential facility for learning disabled people had first opened in 1920 as a ‘mental deficiency colony’. Learning disabled people often spent large portions of their lives in institutionalised care such as this. When the hospital closed in 1996 there was concern that former patients could become isolated from each other and lose important relationships. Pyramid continued as a way to keep those connections alive, and some of the original members still work with Pyramid today. For over thirty years Pyramid has continually grown to support learning disabled artists to explore and develop their creativity and to make art for a wide public. Their studio membership now comprises of 113 artists supported by a team of twenty-one facilitators and four office staff.

quote says "The lack of tailored support is a major barrier to the professional development of learning disabled artists."

Inclusive art has gained considerable momentum in raising the profile of learning disabled artists. Yet, reflected in Pyramid’s history, is the stark reality that many learning disabled people were, and in some cases remain, segregated from society. Outside of specialist supported studios like Pyramid, there are very few avenues for learning disabled artists to access the professional development, networking and career opportunities available to their non-disabled counterparts. Typical routes for artists’ learning and progression – pursuing higher education, participating in residencies or fellowships, engaging in arts criticism through peer groups or publishing – remain woefully inaccessible. In reality, many learning disabled artists face considerable barriers and inequalities. These typically emerge from the shaky relationship between the arts and their social care support.

Pints of beer and Moan Mats by Stephen Harvey. The mats say: "I am not allowed the watch the end of the football match" on one side and on the reverse side, explains: "Because my support worker has to finish his shift on time."

'Moan Mats' by Stephen Harvey. Courtesy of Pyramid and Stephen Harvey.

'Moan Mats' by Stephen Harvey. Courtesy of Pyramid and Stephen Harvey.

The intersection of social care with arts development and funding needs urgent attention. Reforms in social care policy have very strongly reflected the belief that support should be person-centred and led by that person’s specific needs and interests. Yet it’s precisely the lack of tailored support that’s a major barrier to the professional development of learning disabled artists. Learning disabled artists face a range of practical issues, such as: arranging travel to participate in opportunities; how their support packages interact with payment and arts funding; or whether artists can attend evening and weekend events like exhibition openings due to the rigid bureaucracy of the support system, such as inflexible staff shift patterns. In a study by leading inclusive arts organisation Project Art Works, 80 per cent of respondents reported significant issues.

Pyramid artist Stephen Harvey articulates this brilliantly. His piece Moan Mats features statements about his support printed onto beer mats: "I am not allowed to watch the end of the football match because my Support Worker has to finish his shift on time." These were distributed in pubs around Leeds as part of the BEYOND Learning Disability Arts Festival in 2018.

Ultimately for the inclusive arts, arts practice and social care support are two sides of the same coin – neither aspect can exist without the other. If learning disabled artists are to receive equal creative opportunities, we need research exploring how to extend the commitments made to person-centred support to artistic endeavours, and how to connect the different – and often separate – sectors of art and social care.

A culture of collaboration

Ella pictured holding a sign that reads: I am an artist.

Ella, a member of Next Step Pyramid. Courtesy of Pyramid.

Ella, a member of Next Step Pyramid. Courtesy of Pyramid.

The Irregular Art Schools project sits at the crossroads of distinct communities, professions, and academic disciplines. This project brings all three into dialogue. The research team itself collates a range of skills and expertise across visual art and social care. This includes artists and staff from Pyramid, members of artist-led studio and project space Assembly House, staff from Leeds City Council’s Adult Social Care Team and Co-Investigator Dr Katie Graham, Lecturer in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York.

My own background spans contemporary art, facilitation, museums and social care. Before working as a researcher, for many years I was employed as a support worker and personal assistant by learning disabled people, alongside working as an artist. While for a time these parts of my life – art and support work – seemed worlds apart, eventually they collided, and I began working as an artist-facilitator supporting learning disabled artists with their own creative practices. This combined experience has afforded me insights and interests into both fields, serving as a key driver for this project. 

So the project both mirrors and embraces Leeds University’s overall strategy of acting across community, culture, and impact. Together we’re addressing the question of how best to support the success of learning disabled artists in the Leeds City Region.

quote says "Thinking by doing is a collaborative, practice-led approach combining research and activity in the field."

We’re using action research alongside a series of events and workshops. Action research combines research with activity and participation in the field. I like to think of it as ‘thinking by doing’. This collaborative and practice-led approach also enables us to get underneath some of the conceptual questions consistently raised by the inclusive arts which spill into academia. These are questions about how ‘critical thinking’, ‘expertise’, ‘quality’ and ‘success’ are measured and understood. By exploring how learning disabled artists challenge and add new perspectives to these notions, we hope to crack open persistent questions of artistic development in ways which advance academic debates. We can then turn this back, to challenge and change the structures which are currently preventing learning disabled artists from flourishing.

There are two strands to the action research. The first examines an artist-led approach to professional development. It draws upon models such as School of the Damned, a year-long free alternative art course directed by its students. Pyramid artists are collaborating on this with artists from Assembly House, an artist-led gallery and studio housing eighteen artists. Since 2015, Assembly House has supported emerging artists in Leeds by offering affordable studio spaces, career support and funded opportunities as well as hosting a monthly programme of exhibitions, gigs, and events.

Dominique Ghataora, Stephen Harvey, Andrew Wonnacott. I Am An Artist, Tetley (2018). Image courtesy of Pyramid.

From left to right: Dominique Ghataora, Stephen Harvey, Andrew Wonnacott. I Am An Artist, Tetley (2018). Image courtesy of Pyramid.

From left to right: Dominique Ghataora, Stephen Harvey, Andrew Wonnacott. I Am An Artist, Tetley (2018). Image courtesy of Pyramid.

Artist-led spaces like Assembly House remain a vital part of the arts ecology of any city. They act as incubators for artistic development, providing a community for many artists to experiment, refine and develop their individual practice outside formal education and institutions. Artist-led spaces typically comprise of studio and exhibition space, as well as learning, social and networking opportunities for their membership. But crucially, unlike inclusive arts studios, they are usually governed by the artists themselves using various co-operative or committee-led models.

Previous research on learning disabled people’s experiences of education, particularly in school-age years, reveals feelings of not being in charge of their lives precisely because they learned differently. One study found that as a result learning disabled students place a premium on ‘controlling one's destiny’ with regards to their learning. So, this strand of the project will explore and test the self-directed and co-operative models found in artist-led spaces like Assembly House.

The voluntary and grassroots nature of artist-led spaces means they play a key role in the arts. A growing number of artist-led spaces have received Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation status in 2018–22. However, they are often inaccessible and remain narrow in terms of representation. This strand of the research will also explore how existing artist-led spaces like Assembly House in Leeds could better serve learning disabled artists – and, at the same time, improve their broader accessibility and diversity.

Many learning disabled artists disrupt concepts like ‘artist’, ‘research’ and ‘expertise’.

The second strand of action research centres on a collaboration with the University of Leeds itself, taking place within the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies. Here, we aim to create opportunities for learning disabled artists from Pyramid to develop their practice within the current structures of a vibrant art school. The team will explore ways learning disabled artists can access and use the School and what support they require to do so. This strand will take place in 2022. It will be shaped jointly by Pyramid artists and the community of art students and staff. Initial ideas include studio exchanges, pop-up displays, exhibitions, skills exchanges, or workshops.

A two-tone image of a person in a corridor, masked by the words: Do You See Me in graphical print.

'Do You See Me' by Alfie. Courtesy of Pyramid.

'Do You See Me' by Alfie. Courtesy of Pyramid.

Traditional art schools play a part in shaping the art canon and influence how many emerging artists develop their ideas of critical thinking ‘quality’, and ‘taste’. Does artistic quality and artist development mean different things in the contrasting contexts of inclusive arts and higher education? We’re keen to test how the more traditional setting of a university could support the professional development of learning disabled artists – and, in the process, become more inclusive and accessible to students and staff. This work also presents a starting point in considering how fine arts students can gain skills and experience in inclusive arts facilitation. We hope this will open new potential career paths and future collaborations across the city.

Such embedded collaboration means it’s not only learning disabled artists who are creating new opportunities to thrive; as a community of researchers and students we’re benefiting too. Art often transgresses existing categories of thought, action, and creativity; it challenges existing boundaries and identities. Many learning disabled artists value sensory over conceptual routes into meaning. In this way, they disrupt seemingly stable concepts like ‘artist’, ‘research’ and ‘expertise’. In doing so, they enable critical discussions about these to take place, broadening and enriching knowledge production, and crucially, what it means to be a ‘professional’ artist and member of an academic community.

Getting to ‘whole systems change’

A pair of hands waving in sunlight, with the palms and fingers vividly painted in bright colours.

Underpinning all this are activities that aim to transform the academic profile of inclusive art and the valuable contributions that learning disabled people make to academic disciplines. Our methods provide an innovative context for exploring research questions across disciplines.

First, social care support and the inclusive arts currently happen across different sites, networks and contexts. They must be better connected if they are to best support learning disabled artists to develop and sustain careers, and in turn, improve their quality of life through increased choice and opportunity.

The project is facilitating workshops that bring Pyramid together with social care practitioners from Leeds City Council. These workshops will get underneath critical concepts underpinning social care policy. The aim is to facilitate knowledge exchange and develop a shared language that can travel across these groups. The ambition is to enable what Danny Burns, in his book on systemic action research, calls ‘whole systems change’.

Take direct payments, for example. These are a key tool of the ‘personalisation’ agenda, designed to enhance independence and autonomy. The Care Act (2014) uses ‘wellbeing’ as a core concept shaping assessment for direct payments; it defines wellbeing broadly as relating to (but not limited to) participation in work and training and an individual’s contribution to society. Many learning disabled artists use direct payments to support their artistic practice. So, the Care Act appears to offer opportunities for a holistic view of a fulfilling life. However, with funding restraints and eligibility criteria, its potential is limited.

The multiple perspectives within this research and the specific focus on learning disabled artists offer a unique lens through which to interrogate such influential concepts as ‘wellbeing’ which underpin the Care Act. The workshops focus on bringing to the surface the barriers to engaging with and supporting inclusive art among both social workers and arts practitioners.

Street artwork depicting sunlight and music, with the text: Turn up the volume, close your eyes and let the music take over your soul. Turn Up The Volume by Ria. Image courtesy Pyramid Arts.

'Turn Up The Volume' by Ria. Image courtesy of Pyramid.

'Turn Up The Volume' by Ria. Image courtesy of Pyramid.

Using the insights from these workshops, we aim to create a training package for qualified social workers and personal assistants. Personal assistants (or PAs) are directly employed by learning disabled people in receipt of direct payments. They’re a growing part of the social care workforce. Lessons from this project about the role of the inclusive arts facilitators can contribute to developing and recognising the general skills of the PA workforce. We’ll draw out the commonalities between the PA role and inclusive arts facilitation to develop resources for PAs seeking to work in inclusive, creative and enabling ways helping us to transfer what we’ve learnt from a local to a more national context.

Second, academics have gained considerable knowledge about including learning disabled people in research. But we know much less about how co‐researchers with learning disabilities can take part in publishing and dissemination at the end of projects. Reading and writing often pose a barrier for learning disabled people, so their inclusion in traditional academic publishing routes like journals has been viewed as challenging.

Over the past twenty years, inclusive research methods have demanded a shift in power from academic researchers without disability to learning disabled people themselves. We’re therefore reimagining what form an inclusive academic arts ‘publication’ might take, testing ways to inclusively edit and peer review inclusive art. We want to test whether such opportunities offer additional routes for professional development, as well as addressing the value of widening participation within scholarly publishing and arts criticism. We want to find out how, and in what ways, this might be practically achievable.

Finally, many organisations and professionals in the inclusive arts sector share mutual concerns but have few opportunities to network and examine practice critically. The Irregular Art Schools project is leading two national inclusive arts think-tanks. These will bring together thirty facilitators, professionals, and inclusive art organisations across the UK.  Together they will identify and troubleshoot key sector issues, such as ways to better connect practice and policy around social care provision with inclusive arts, and what leadership and development looks like for facilitators. We then plan to talk to international inclusive arts organisations. Online video calls with targeted organisations will put our action research findings from Leeds into a global context.

The irregular art school

This research begins with, and ultimately returns to, Pyramid artists and their facilitators who create incredible art on our university’s doorstep. Ultimately, by embracing a culture of collaboration and focusing on impact, we hope to begin addressing entrenched inequalities. We’ve been inspired by Professor Roger Slee’s The Irregular School. In this book he discusses how continuing to think in terms of the ‘regular’ school or the ‘special’ school obstructs progress towards inclusive education.

Rather than separating learning and development into ‘inclusive’ or ‘mainstream’, ‘regular’ or ‘special’, we instead propose an ‘irregular’ art school at Leeds. Here people with different life experiences, ways of knowing and ways of being, can progress and learn together side by side.

About the author

Dr Jade French is a Research Fellow based in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies.

With a background in both contemporary art and social care, Jade’s practice-led research broadly examines access and participation within the arts, with a focus on collaborating with learning disabled people to innovate inclusive practices in curating, commissioning and artist development.

About the project

The ‘Irregular’ Art Schools project runs from 2021–23. It seeks to innovate professional development opportunities for learning disabled artists through action research in collaboration with supported studio Pyramid, artist-led space Assembly House, and Leeds City Council. It is funded by the AHRC.

Dr Jade French

Dr Jade French

Dr Jade French