Putting Disability Arts on the BC cultural map
In 1997, a small group of artists and advocates with disabilities got together in Vancouver to talk about bringing disability arts to British Columbia. Key among them were filmmaker Bonnie Sherr Klein and disability activist Catherine Frazee. Inspired by a growing international disability arts movement, and by Canadian disability activist Catherine Frazee’s urging to find “both pleasure and politics in disability culture.” Among those gathered were two artists whose lives already exemplified that call – filmmaker Bonnie Klein, and sculptor/dancer Geoffrey McMurchy. As Bonnie Klein put it: “Living with disability is an art. Our various and unique disabilities compel us to create innovative paths around obstacles. In both content and form, we are taking risks that only we can take.”
They continued to meet, and by 1998, the first disability arts organization in Canada was born. Registered as the Society for Disability Arts and Culture (S4DAC), the nonprofit society’s goals were simple, but not easy: to support and promote artists with disabilities and to present disability arts festivals to BC audiences. The fledgling group pledged to present “authentic non-sentimental expressions of the disability experience,” to include all artistic disciplines, and to welcome all disabilities. People with disabilities were to comprise at least 50 percent of the board of directors. These have remained the organization’s guiding goals and principles through almost 20 years of building disability arts in Canada.
In March 2001, the group launched its first public expression of those goals. It presented the visual art exhibit, Outside the Lines: Self-Portraits by Artists with Disabilities, at the Pendulum Gallery, curated by Persimmon Blackbridge and Elizabeth Shefrin.
Meanwhile, work was already well underway to create the first international disability arts festival in Canada, under the leadership of S4DAC founding member and artistic director, Geoffrey McMurchy.
Launching the KickstART! festival
Against a background of ever-expanding logistic challenges, plans for the “anything is possible” festival ramped up through 2000 and 2001. Calls to artists and funders went out, submissions flooded in, programs were assembled, publicity hit the media, dignitaries were invited, and the KickstART! festival was on! Artists and audiences took over the fully accessible Roundhouse Community Centre for five days in the summer of 2001 (August 14-19), while three other Vancouver galleries (The Diane Farris, Atrium, and Access galleries) showed artworks for the festival. Governor General Adrienne Clarkson attended. Erin Brady Worsham made giant banners. David Sereda composed a theme song. The Down Beats, from Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in Minneapolis, won hearts and minds with their rousing performance of the hit song, Too many chromosomes to drive a car. And the Swamp Angels choir made their mark in Vancouver. As Bonnie Klein commented, the KickstART festival had indeed become a place “where we can dare to be our most authentic, glorious, courageous selves.”
Building on this success, S4DAC hosted KickstART 2 in September 2004, its second festival of international and local artists with disabilities, held again at the Roundhouse. As Geoff McMurchy noted in his introduction to the program guide, pulling it together was, once again, a roller coaster ride, defying expectations with limited resources. Featured were dance performers Five Foot Feat, The Nasty Girls with their “biting and dangerous comedy,” and the “Extraordinary Lives” visual art show. S4DAC acknowledged disability activist Joan Meister by creating the Joan Meister KickstART Award for an outstanding contribution to disability art and culture.
Artists and audiences gathered again in 2007 for a KickstART mini-festival in Victoria that included dance, humour, mime, and visual art.
Following this festival and after years of being called the Society for Disability Arts & Culture (S4DAC), the organization changed its name in 2009 to Kickstart Disability Arts & Culture, to align with the more well-known name of our festivals.
2010 Olympic “legacy”
Then in 2010, the Olympics and Paralympics came to town. Expectations of fame and fortune (or at least a better cash flow) ran high in the disability arts community. But as longtime Kickstart board member and performer David Roche commented after the dust settled, “Olympic reality was not as glamorous as anticipated… The Cultural Olympiad process seemed less interested in building community than in creating a big splash event.”
The KickstART festival of 2010 diverged from our usual partnership with the Roundhouse Community Centre to present events around Vancouver through the month of March, under the theme “Unleashing the Extraordinary.” With Olympiad funding, artistic director Geoff McMurchy was able to bring in internationally renowned hip-hop dance artist Bill Shannon, AKA “The Crutchmaster,” a pioneer whose brilliant moves had widely influenced “able-bodied” dance companies. Kickstart also mounted the Heroes art show with a glossy Olympic-funded catalogue, and But several other Kickstart community-based events went ahead without Olympic funding, and garnered more community response, leaving McMurchy with doubts that any lasting legacy for disability arts resulted from the Olympics/Paralympics. Roche believes that rather than leaving a dramatically altered legacy, the Olympics/Paralympics merely reinforced the community-oriented values and practices that have always been at the heart of disability arts: mentoring, inclusion, initiative/leadership, and cooperation/collaboration.
For the fifth festival in 2013, Kickstart handed the reins from Geoff McMurchy over to incoming artistic director Emma Kivisild, who had big shoes to fill. Kickstart 5, held once again in our “home base” Roundhouse Community Centre, the organization brought in national artists like Luca Patuelli from Montreal and Big Daddy Tazz from Winnipeg, while showcasing local artists like sylvi macCormac, Dave Symington, and Lazare Halk. A festival cabaret presented 10 emerging performers to an enthusiastically receptive audience.
While producing arts festivals has been our most high profile work, that’s not all Kickstart gets up to. We have presented many independent visual art shows (Outside the Lines, Borg Again, Islands, Heroes), and performances by such artists as Christa Couture and David Roche.
In 2012, Kickstart broke ground again with the Wide Angle Media Festival (WAM), Canada’s first disability film and video festival. Media by artists with disabilities from around the world hit Vancouver screens, and included commissioned works by Jan Derbyshire and Adam Grant Warren.
2012 also saw the creation of Vocaleye, a service that provides voice description of theatre and film events for audience members with visual impairments. Vocaleye now works in association with the Canadian Federation for the Blind. They have offered their descriptive audio services to many organizations in Vancouver and across Canada.
New program directions
Since its inception, Kickstart has been a festival-based organization, producing highly successful and innovative multi-disciplinary arts festivals every two to three years. These festivals have succeeded in showcasing the work of artists with disabilities, and engaging audiences with professional-quality art that challenges typical understandings and representations of people with disabilities. The festivals introduced the BC public to the cultural contributions being made by artists living with disabilities, raised public consciousness about disability issues, and provided opportunities for BC artists to develop and grow.
In 2014, board, staff, and our committed supporters, re-examined Kickstart’s focus on mounting disability arts festivals every three years. Not only did the five-day festivals demand an enormous amount of resources and concentrated organizing, but we began to ask ourselves, what happens the rest of the time? Do festivals provide the best possible opportunities for artists? Do they reach the widest possible audience? How could we sustain the momentum created by our festivals during the in-between years? How could we provide ongoing support to artists with disabilities, and maintain our contribution to the arts community?
As a result of this critical self-examination, Kickstart decided to move away from the festival format to experiment with regular programming on a more continuous basis throughout the year. We believed this would enable us to better support artists with disabilities, keep their work in the public eye, and sustain our organization’s public presence and contribution to the arts.
Recent Programs (2014-2019)
For our first foray in this new direction in 2014, we presented the “Fine Line Project,” a series of nine events from April to December, including readings, concerts, artist talks, and theatre performances. The positive audience response we received encouraged us to move forward with this kind of programming.
In 2015 we presented a variety of events exploring the theme “And I shall be happy”: a juried visual art show at the Pendulum Gallery; a collection of experimental collaborative performance pieces in “Mouthpiece,” presented at the Cultch; a street performance, “Get Happy,” by Velveeta Krisp and collaborators; and an artists’ talk and video screening with Kiss & Tell art collective.
We could not have brought these events to Vancouver audiences without the dedicated help and support of our various community partners, including Vancouver Adapted Music Society, The Queer Arts Festival, posAbilities, the grunt gallery, Gallery Gachet, Still Moon Arts Society, Vancouver Board of Parks & Recreation, Queer Film Festival, Realwheels, to mention a few. We continue to strengthen these partnerships, as well as forge new ones, as we grow and change.
2016 promised to be an exciting year for Kickstart, as we launched a new series of events under the theme, “Every day in every way.” Under the guidance of our “new” Artistic Director, Yuri Arajs, the program of year-round events, with a focus on the visual arts and film, cemented our position as an ongoing contributor to the artistic vibrancy of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Canada.
As a diverse community and movement, we are always evolving and growing. Whenever enough of us get together, we have a lot to say about disability and the arts. We don’t always agree, but we welcome more people in the discussion. We invite you to check out our events, and get involved!