Artistic Director Dr Ju Gosling writes: The now annual Together! 2022 Open Exhibition brings together work by amateur, community, student, semi-professional and professional Disabled artists of all ages from the main Paralympic Host Borough of Newham. Anyone with a Newham connection – for example, living, studying, working or volunteering in Newham, now or in the past – and who identifies as a Deaf or Disabled person* is able to submit one family-friendly work for guaranteed inclusion. *When we say Disabled, we use the Social Model of Disability, and we include people with learning difficulties, long-term mental health difficulties, physical or sensory impairments and long-term health conditions, from all ages and cultural groups.
Other Open Exhibitions set up committees to judge work, often charging fellow artists for the privilege of refusing to include them. We encourage artists to learn to judge their work for themselves, and promise to include and respect their choices. The result is an exhibition that is always vibrant with colour and energy, and where no one can be sure of the age or background of the artist simply by viewing their work.
Our 2012 Open Exhibition took place in Stratford, hosted by Eastside Community Heritage. They had rented space from the local Labour Party in order to create a pop-up space where visitors and athletes could connect with Newham’s heritage and communities. Eastside offered us their back room for the duration of the Paralympics, and also held a storytelling workshop there. It was a tiny space, but every inch of it was covered in pictures. It may have been the first time that Disabled artists came together in Newham.
Fast forward, and the Open has taken place more than ten times already, because we used to tour it where venues existed. The closest we have had to a gallery space — the closest Newham has had to a gallery space — was the Hub in Canning Town, which we used regularly when it was still operated for the benefit of the community. We have also made multiple visits to the Old Town Hall West Ham, Newham Dockside, Beckton Library, and Vicarage Lane Community Centre. Many thousands of people have seen our exhibits in the past in person at these public venues.
The fact that only Beckton Library is still available as a venue, a building which has serious access issues, is just one factor in why we are now an online project instead. This is our third online exhibition, and everyone is growing in confidence. Working online opens up new audiences and new means of participating, and also new means of viewing work — for example, depending on the file size and quality, we can view work in closer detail than we can see in a gallery. One impact on me as a curator of working digitally is not having to take the type of frame into consideration when programming the work — in our online exhibition, frames only exist if they are essential to the work. Of course, there are obvious losses as well as gains of moving online. For Disabled people, though, public spaces have always been a struggle at best to access, and are not the easiest places to work in. We are all still learning how best to document and present physical work online, and always, we will continue to share that learning as we reach different milestones.
In 2023, we will be developing the Open Exhibition further, when it moves to a new home in July, Disability Pride Month.