21 June 2012
Chas de Swiet has worked in arts management since 2000 and has worked for a number of arts organisations with a specialism in diversity and disability arts. He is also an artist, mainly working with sound and music. In this second instalment of Charlie Swinbourne's interview with him, he talks about his career, his identity as a disabled person, and the creative case for diversity.
I meet Chas de Swiet at his home in north London. Before we sit down and start to talk, he tells me about his recent break in Yorkshire and makes me a very nice cup of tea. It's a relaxing start to an interview with someone who is incredibly busy.
As someone who works in both arts management and as an artist in his own right, I'm interested in whether he finds it easy to combine the two: “The arts-management side of things definitely informs the creative side,” he tells me. “Working fairly close to the creative process as a manager means that I’ve got a good handle on how things should work.”
Chas has worked for a number of disability arts organisations. How did he get started? “I was lucky to get a job as an administrator at London Disability Arts Forum (LDAF) when that still existed.” From there, he went to Mental Health Media, progressing from being a research and production assistant to the head of operations. His next step was LOCOG, then the Arts Council and on to the Greenwich+Docklands Festivals and Liberty.
Working at LDAF was where he identified as a disabled artist for the first time: “I didn’t really relate mental health with disability until I started at LDAF. Before then I was quite active within the mental-health protest scene, and the arts scene. But then reading the job ad for LDAF and it said “open to disabled people” and I made the connection.”
He tells me that for a new arts project he's working on, he left a ghetto blaster outside LDAF's former offices playing a track on repeat as a reflection on that period. He had a big sense of loss when LDAF went: “I mean, I’d left it by then. But I think the magazine was a really important resource. In some ways it was a national magazine rather than just for London. And there was a little bit of a gap between that closing and DAO getting established. I think the Disability Film Festival, when that ran, was important. And I’d also say I don’t think there’s necessarily that much support [now] for people who are just establishing themselves.”
I ask him how he feels Disability Arts has changed since he started out. “There’s definitely been a shift in the way that disability arts has been funded. The emphasis now is much more in encouraging mainstream organisations to engage with disabled artists.”
Chas thinks the general progression has been positive. “But I do worry that there are less opportunities now for managers and creatives to get a stepping stone. And for me, it was really important that first of all in the mental-health world, and then in the disability arts world, that in some ways, they were kind of partly enclosed. So having experienced a lot of stigma and discrimination, in some ways they were safe. Safe spaces with like-minded people.”
Does he think the Creative Case for Diversity will help disability arts change for the better? “You know, there’s always been this debate around quality; how do you define quality within disability arts. And I think in some ways, the Creative Case moves that discussion forward.”
I wonder how accessible the Creative Case is in terms of people understanding it. For many deaf artists, for example, English isn't their strength (especially if BSL is their first language) and I personally struggled to understand the literature around the Creative Case. I ask Chas how he would define it. “I’d say... that creative work by diverse artists is important because it creates great art. And it’s not about supporting work by diverse artists because it’s something we should do. It’s something that we want to do because it creates great art.”
A recent debate within Disability Arts, sparked by the artist Colin Cameron, has focused on whether there is enough criticism within the sector. Why are mainstream critics so reluctant to criticise disabled artists? “The question is, are they interested in it?” Chas replies. “If you draw parallels between artists from diverse cultural backgrounds, the press doesn’t have many problems in reviewing it. So I think the question is much more about getting it out there and getting it reviewed in the first place.”
After this summer's extensive arts programme, what does Chas think will change over the next ten years?
“I think a younger generation does have to come through. You see organisations like Heart n Soul, who do have young artists. But I’m not convinced that I’m seeing that elsewhere within the disability-arts sector. I think what happens though in the next 10 years is very dependent on new blood.”
We talk some more about Yorkshire and about leaving ghetto blasters in public spaces, then I am gone.