The grassroots beginning of Shape.

Shape was set up in 1976 by a dancer called Gina Levete. Gina believed that everyone can express themselves through dance, and before starting Shape would organise regular dance workshops with disabled children. They responded so well to the sessions that she was inspired to create an organisation dedicated to making sure other isolated groups of people could benefit from the arts! Now, Shape’s powerful philosophy Art Without Barriers was born – a belief that barriers between people can be broken down through creativity. By 1978, more than 70 clients and 300 artists were on Shape’s register: and, to put things in historical perspective, membership cost a very reasonable £1 a year! By the end of the decade, Shape had launched projects in schools, prisons, colleges, and art centres across London and the rest of the UK, breaking barriers and forming direct links between artists and different groups of people.


Growth and expansion.

As the wider Disability Arts Movement began to take shape around the UK, Shape itself became an important force in the political struggle for disabled people’s civil rights. The Disability Arts Movement was directly linked to disability politics and creativity was a necessary part of every protest; artists such as Tony Heaton used the outrage and spectacle of activism to create art that challenged preconceived ideas about disability. This was the period in which other disability arts organisations joined together to create a radical political force within arts and culture – in 1986, the London Disability Arts Forum protected the interests of Graeae, Shape and Artsline.

Beyond its London centre, Shape grew into a UK-wide network, with 11 independent services providing regular workshops, professional performances and campaigns to raise awareness about the social model of disability. The organic growth of this Shape network came directly from the action of disabled people; Shape was a space where disabled people took control of their own lives and boosted their careers. We created opportunities where there were none: for example, the 1980s saw Shape hire their first disabled Director Chris Davies, who was followed in 1988 by another disabled leader, Maggie Woolley. In 1985 Shape hired its first full-time Training Officer, whose role was to develop a training programme for arts and social services. The growth of Shape Arts also led the birth of other Disability Arts organisations – in 1986, a Shape London workshop in Lewisham led to the setting up of the music theatre company for people with learning disabilities called Heart n Soul. This decade-long period of growth and expansion was realised with the weeklong Movin’ On Festival in 1989, organised by Shape development workers and providing first-time opportunities for disabled artists.


Communities and artist development.

As well as continuing its work with community groups - increasing access to the arts for the homeless, elderly people, people with serious illnesses and disabled people - Shape defined itself as an arts development agency for disabled artists. 1991 saw the first ever disability arts and culture seminar organised by Shape: this milestone was met with other projects - the Shape Borough Development Programme, Shape Training (London’s major training resource in the disability area), Shape’s Ticket Scheme, festivals and special events. Shape was one of the only organisations giving employment opportunities to disabled artists, opportunities which could help artists in their personal career development. One such employee was the now internationally acclaimed artist Yinka Shonibare MBE, who worked part-time at Shape in the 90s as an arts development officer. Yinka has spoken openly of how ‘running workshops on singing, dancing or visual arts for disabled and older people in day centres and hospitals […] gave me organisational and funding skills’ key to his own artistic path.

In the background of Shape’s day-to-day arts outreach programmes was the ongoing growth of the Disability Arts Movement. The 90s saw disabled people fighting for their own disability culture, engaging in issues of discrimination and barriers in order to fight against them and secure their self-determination. Art became the expression of disabled people’s struggle to remove barriers; Shape was incredibly important in curating and producing a number of cultural events for disability arts around Britain. For instance, publishing an anthology of new writing in 1994 called Re-write, the Story Teller exhibition of narrative paintings, poetry and performances in 1996, and the Adorn, Equip and Accessorise exhibition in 1999, which commissioned fashionable versions of disability accessories. Shape’s commitment to supporting and empowering disabled artists was integral in shaping a collective voice around disability.


Bigger events: towards the mainstream.

In 1989, Shape’s Annual Review predicted that the year 2000 would see Shape collaborate with other disability arts organisations, using this network to achieve greater quality of provision and equality for disabled people. However, the breadth of programmes during this period – training, access and funding individual artists – established Shape as a single organisation with a wide-reaching network. This was the decade Shape aimed to influence the  mainstream cultural sector. In 2004-05, 35,000 people used our services; the Open the Door 2005 Campaign worked with over 400 arts and culture organisations; and Shape Tickets would regularly oversee 4,000 theatre trips a year. Shape asserted itself as a leading facilitator of disability arts by launching the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary in 2007. Now, Shape was able to directly empower disabled artists through its own creative nexus by providing disabled people with a space to create. Other achievements included the publication of A Rough Guide to Access to Work in 2008 and the Art Signs programme for deaf BSL users to train as gallery guides at the Tate Modern.


Where we are now…


Understanding the importance of Disability Art means recognising the creative value disabled people bring to arts and culture. No longer should disability arts be dismissed as ‘community’ or developmental; Shape’s success in producing a number of projects reflects our commitment to this belief. Unlimited, NDACA, the Shape Open, Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary, Shape Youth, our careers and advice services and the variety of blogs online: these are the tools Shape uses to showcase the artistic talent of disabled people. If the 2000s connected Shape Arts to the mainstream cultural sector, the 2010s is the decade in which our biggest projects are being realised. NDACA, the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive, is a £1-million Heritage Lottery Fund digital and analogue project which will tell the story of the 'Golden Age' of the Disability Arts Movement -- Shape Arts is incredibly proud to call itself NDACA's lead partner on delivery. Unlimited is another huge milestone for disabled artists and Shape: £1.5-million funding from the Arts Council has allowed Shape and our partners Artsadmin to commission and showcase disabled artists' ambitious and high quality work at high-profile venues like the Southbank Centre. In 2016, Shape and Arts Admin received 3 years of funding for Unlimited International, a programme that will tour the work of disabled artists around Japan, Australia and Brazil.

As we look ahead towards the next 40 years and how to sustain our philosophy of Art Without Barriers for the future, Shape’s place in the arts and cultural sector is clear and necessary. Shape is one of the key organisations able to bring disability arts into the mainstream consciousness, in turn helping Britain to reach a cultural age of equality and diversity.

Article written by Georgia Macqueen Black

To support our 40th campaign and ensure that our work continues to make positive change, please go to: www.shapearts.org.uk/art-without-barriers or contact us with Shape memories, images and stories of your own via [email protected]  

With best wishes from all the Shape team

Click here to go to our art without barriers appeal

Banner image: montage of Shape logos from the last 40 years