Georgia Macqueen Black: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Steve! What was your overall vision of Shape in the 2000s?

Steve Mannix: The vision of Shape in the 2000s (God, that seems a long time ago now) was to work on several ‘fronts’: grassroots, our selection of Shape artists, and Shape's relationship with the mainstream arts and culture sector.

GMB: Could you explain a bit more about these different fronts?

The grassroots level involved supporting disabled artists in different London boroughs (we still had our offices in Wandsworth, Hammersmith and Fulham, Hackney and Islington). These offices very much worked within the community, linking disabled artists to youth programmes in schools, and maintaining partnerships with other local disability rights organisations.

Of course, as a disability-led arts organisation, we continued to support artists by profiling their work in exhibitions and professional development programmes, such as Deaf Arts. But overall our most important aim was to increase disabled people's access to mainstream provision for the arts and to influence mainstream organisations in their decision making around support for disabled artists. We wanted big arts organisations to change their approach to programming, commissioning and staffing by being far more inclusive to disabled people. 

GMB: Did you face any challenges when trying to shift disability arts into the mainstream?

SM: Well, it’s important to note that before the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 - the legislation that made it illegal for employers and society to discriminate against disabled people - there was no legislative need for arts and culture organisations to embrace disabled and Deaf artists, nor change their policy for diverse and fair employment of disabled people. Now, in 2016, with the Arts Council's Creative Case for Diversity, we are finally seeing a real shift in the government's approach to equality and diversity, yet when I was CEO of Shape in the early 2000s, we were often told by mainstream venues that they were too focused on 'quality' to incorporate the work of disabled artists into their programmes. So, I would say the challenge we faced during that period was the UK mainstream arts world's reluctance to recognise disability art as worthy of mainstream inclusion.

However, we were determined to lift disability art out of a 'community' or developmental cultural framework. We very much wanted and needed to lift Shape’s status and profile. Luckily, through a fantastic staff team and board we were able to increase the income of the organisation in my time from £450,000 to £1.2 million!

GMB: Wow, fantastic! Could you mention any other big achievements during your time at Shape?

SM: For the European Year of Disabled People in 2003, we produced the National Launch at Thames Television on the South Bank on behalf of the government. The launch was a very high profile event, and we also organised the UK leg of the European Year of Disabled People Campaign Bus, which travelled to each member state in 2003.

What else – the Giants exhibition (photographed by David Hevey) in 2006 was the start of a strong working relationship with the Mayor's Office in London and helped us to reach a higher level of recognition across the capital, as well as other important 'decision makers' in the arts and culture sector. Which was no surprise, as the Giants exhibition was a great piece of work - it also went on to tour at the Edinburgh Festival.

The Liberty Festival in Trafalgar Square was another big event of the 2000s and provided lots of first-time opportunities for disabled performers. We were one of the founding organisations of the festival.

GMB: Now in its 8th year, the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary offers a three month residency at a high profile arts venue and a £5000 bursary. Can you talk about the story of setting up the Adam Reynolds Bursary?

SM: Sadly, when Adam died we felt it was incredibly important to mark his life and career as one of the only disabled artists to have been accepted very early on from the mainstream arts world. We wanted the bursary to give artists the time and space to develop their work, and to also form a high profile partnership between the selected artist and a mainstream venue or gallery, so that they could gain further professional development and profile their work. It was initially very difficult to convince a gallery to take the project on, but in Camden Arts Centre we found a great first partner.

GMB: Another important project during your time as Shape’s CEO was the 2006 Open the Door Campaign, which aimed to improve access to the arts for disabled people in the creative industries. Can you tell me more about it?

SM: We set up Open the Door as a direct response to consultation work we did with artists and audiences – disabled people could maybe get 'in the door' (if they were lucky) but they were not supported or their access needs recognised.

Open the Door was also seen as the ‘last battle’ to get mainstream organisations to take access and inclusion seriously – they were forever telling us they just didn’t know what to do!

Also – as disability rights legislation developed (DDA Access to Goods and Services – 2004) we wanted to make sure people were both compliant with the legislation and following the social model of disability, as well as looking at artistic programming and inclusion at all levels of their organisation.

Open the Door worked with some notable organisations, such as the National Theatre, British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Arts Council England and The Barbican.

GMB: One Shape Arts project that was running until quite recently was Shape Tickets, a scheme that offered access to the best arts and entertainment to disabled and older people. Obviously government cuts saw the closure of Shape Tickets, but could you explain more about its purpose during the 2000s?

SM: I always liked the Shape tickets model especially as at the time there was little or no audience development work being carried out by venues. They were ignoring the needs of this important audience segment. Sadly it was always very costly and staff intensive to manage… But that’s another story!

Ultimately, everyone at Shape in the 2000s felt it was important for venues across art forms to see disabled people as audience members and not a ‘problem’! Shape Tickets was so important in giving disabled people access to the entertainment and enjoyment of the arts scene in London. 

GMB: How did government legislation impact on Shape as a disability-led arts organisation in the 2000s? Could you explain in more detail the specific legislation concerning Shape?

SM: We experienced a decade of considerable legislative change in the 2000s, and had to respond to the needs of both disabled and deaf people and of the arts sector as a whole. Looking back it felt like a period of great change and success.

The Government finally introduced a programme of legislation to remove discrimination by putting disability equality on a par with race and gender.

The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) has enshrined the concept of civil rights in law for disabled people. Along with other changes in education (Special Educational Needs Act, 2001) it offered equal access to employment, education, transport, leisure, goods, services and information for the first time.

The formation of the Disability Rights Commission in 2001, the new Office for Disability Issues and the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights demonstrated the Government’s commitment to equality and social inclusion.

GMB: Taking a step back from government policy, what do you predict for the next 40 years of Shape Arts and the impact Disability Arts will continue to have in UK arts and culture?

SM: Well – as we always said about Graeae and many of the other disability arts organisations – the aim should not be to simply exist, as if their collective existence is a true reflection of equality and inclusion for disabled people. From what’s happening at the moment [in terms of government cuts] that’s certainly not going to happen. Things have gone backwards, more than I ever thought possible in my lifetime. In the 1980s and 1990s those involved in the Disability Arts Movement did a lot of demonstrations, and this change and optimism continued into the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now in 2016, there’s a need for organisations like Shape more than ever – to protect what we have!

To support our 40th campaign and ensure that our work continues to make positive change, please go to: or contact us with Shape memories, images and stories of your own via [email protected]  

With best wishes from all the Shape team.