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Photoworks: Working with neurodiverse artists

15th Apr 2019

We spoke to Claire Wearn, Project Manager of Photoworks’ In Focus programme, about their current commissioning opportunity. Claire has previously commissioned learning disabled artists and has worked with artists who have been non-verbal or had profound learning disabilities through her work with Outside in, ActionSpace, and HOUSE Biennial.

In Focus was developed through an invitation to collaborate with Project Art Works on their EXPLORERS programme, which is informed and led by neurodiverse communities. This collaboration has enabled Photoworks to produce In Focus and its bespoke commissioning opportunity for a neurodiverse adult artist – a first for the organisation who have not had a disability arts focus in their previous work.

As the EXPLORERS programme is very much about organisational learning, not just about programming, it has been a great opportunity for knowledge sharing within the organisation. The Photoworks team has taken part in Project Art Works’ Awareness and Encounter days, so that the whole organisation has experience of working with adults who have complex support needs, and an increased understanding about working with neurodiverse people and their families and support networks.

This project has allowed the organisation to undertake a year of research and development where they have scrutinised their current commissioning model. They have used this as an opportunity to look at how they can make other commissions more inclusive, such as the biennial Jerwood/Photoworks Awards. They have spent time during the R&D period consulting with neurodiverse artists and their support networks as part of this research.

Whilst Claire oversees the commission, Learning & Engagement Consultant Juliette Buss oversees other elements of In Focus, which includes a bespoke photography club for adults with complex needs. The club is run by 3 artist-facilitators who each go into a social care setting to meet with and learn from neurodiverse people, to ensure that the club can be effective for its participants in reducing social isolation and challenging behaviours. There has also been an Action Research Project, which has researched into how best neurodiverse adults can work with photography, given the range of support needs they might have. In the Action Research sessions, participants have built life-size Camera Obscuras and experimented with projections and drawing, as well as other cameraless techniques.

For the commission, Claire spent time composing the brief after consultation with Project Art Works, disability arts organisations, and experienced colleagues across the UK. The opportunity has been shared through arts listings, and also directly to social care settings, and those working with neurodiverse adults and those with complex needs, to make sure it reaches the right people – possibly those who don’t already identify as an artist. It’s an opportunity for the organisation to support someone who may not have an advocate or platform for their creative work. Although the outcome of the commission is a complete unknown, there will be a public-facing element where audiences can experience either the finished work or the work in progress.

Claire’s top tip for developing this type of inclusive art project is to invite expertise and to invest time. Each individual will have a unique set of support requirements that you need to understand, in order to be able to facilitate their experience properly, and ensure it is correctly resourced. The best way to understand this is to go out and meet people in their own setting, along with any support networks they might have, and find out first-hand what the individual support needs are.

If you have any questions for Claire about the commission, please email

Image by Project Art Works maker Louise Newham.

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