With exhibitions, events, residencies and focus groups, Square Peg at Artlink is giving a diverse group of artists the opportunity to shine during Hull’s year as UK City of Culture 2017.

What would an arts programme look like from the perspective of disabled artists? That’s what Square Peg sets out to discover, Artlink’s disability and diversity arts programme supported by Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and backed by its Principal Partner, Spirit of 2012.

This year-long programme of exhibitions, interventions and other events is tackling the stigma around disability arts, revisiting (and building on) Artlink’s roots as an arts centre dedicated to access for all. So far it’s created a whole host of opportunities, allowing disabled artists to exhibit and promote their work and giving audiences with disabilities the opportunity to have their voices heard.

Above all else, Square Peg is raising awareness of the barriers that disabled people face. The project aims to bring people together, creating a better understanding of what it is to be from a diverse community.

For audiences as well as artists, accessing the arts can be problematic. Finding out what’s on or applying for opportunities to share your work can become huge barriers, creating a world where disabled artists and audiences are separate from the mainstream. Square Peg is trying to address this imbalance, creating opportunities that are wholly accessible and open specifically to disabled artists.

Rachel Elm, manager of Square Peg, explains that: “What we’re trying to do is fulfil that need for disabled artists to have opportunities available to them.”

And Square Peg is certainly doing that. First-rate exhibitions like the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursay: Shortlist, Oliver MacDonald’s Dog Basket Baboon and Anita Corbin’s Visible Girls: Revisited are proving that high-quality, inclusive arts are achievable and popular with audiences.

“We want to try and impact the delivery of other arts organisations and hopefully have an impact on the city as a whole,” Rachel says.

The Disability Arts Network, an initiative already run by Artlink, is feeding into Square Peg, bringing together service users, disability organisations, disabled artists and the wider community to consult on how to make events accessible.

The Square Peg focus group is making this happen too. “This group is identifying what the gaps are locally and where there are access problems,” Rachel explains. “They’re going to try and fill that gap and create their own project.”

What’s emboldening about Square Peg is its commitment to the development of disabled artists, throughout the duration of the project. For some of the artists involved, opportunities to exhibit professionally have been limited in the past; through Square Peg, these artists are being offered invaluable project management skills and exhibition experience that will prepare them for a future working in the industry.

The programme of events for the rest of the year certainly looks set to be daring.

Alien Sex Capsule artwork
© Rob Battersby

Current exhibition John Walter’s Alien Sex Capsule, a multimedia, multi-sensory and immersive show exploring the relationship between visual culture and HIV today, is guaranteed to be bold and provocative.

Hull 2017’s fourth season, Tell the World, kicks off with The Dyslexia Portrait, a photography exhibition by Hull photographic artist Miranda Harr. Featuring former football manager Sam Allardyce, BBC antiques expert Jonty Hearnden and soprano singer Anna Devin, the exhibition explores and challenges our ideas about how people with dyslexia see the world and showcases the incredible skills, talent and diversity of people with dyslexia

Later in the year, Centre of Attention sees the Alternative Limb Project, local film makers Fly Girl and model and diversity advocate Kelly Knox come together to create an exhibition of stunning, alternative limbs. The fascinating exhibition of film, photography and bespoke prosthetic limbs investigates the relationship between disability and fashion and will be accompanied by a series of artist talks and masterclasses.

Taking the programme beyond 2017, Square Peg artist-in-residence Jason Wilsher-Mills will round off his nine-month residency with a solo show in January 2018 that looks set to impress. A digital artist and painter, he is fascinated with memory – a focus both personal and resonant. Jason will be running a series of workshops at the end of August to feed into this work, engaging the wider community.

Square Peg is also collaborating with Engage, a leading advocacy and training network for gallery education, to host a conference rethinking diversity at the end of November. The conference will strike right at the heart of current debates on equality, diversity and access, with bursaries on offer for those most under-represented in the arts as well as those who might otherwise be unable to afford a place. It’s clear that, whether it’s through the artistic programme or the events that surround it, Square Peg and Engage are actively encouraging people to get their voices heard.

Rachel knows all too well, these dialogues are crucial, saying: “We need to be having these conversations. The disabled and non-disabled communities need to be having these conversations about what we can do, and what we aren’t doing and we need to feel comfortable in having what can be quite difficult conversations sometimes.”

Now that we’re over half-way through 2017, it’s heartening to see that through Square Peg’s focus groups, meetings, workshops and the quality, thought-provoking art they’re programming, more people are starting to discuss diversity in proactive, empowered conversations here in Hull.

Rachel recognises the impact of this so far too: “We’re putting on accessible events in a way we’ve never done before. We use audio description and BSL in ways we’ve never done before – it’s exciting seeing different people coming in. We’re seeing people that maybe haven’t been in an art gallery before, and we’re noticing that people are coming back.”

Debbie Lye, Spirit of 2012 Chief Executive said: “As an organisation committed to championing opportunities for disabled people, Spirit of 2012 is thrilled to be funding Square Peg at Artlink. We’re especially pleased as a principal partner of Hull 2017 to see Square Peg having the space to showcase some great disabled artists and explore their work at the same time as increasing accessibility and challenging people’s perceptions of disability – two areas that Spirit is working hard to improve.”

If you want to get involved, you can – there’s still plenty to see and do with Square Peg. You can join a Disability Arts Network meeting and share your experiences, or ask how you can make your events more accessible. You can attend an exhibition, view the work and chat with staff and artists at Artlink, because as Rachel makes clear, “It’s the responsibility of everybody, no matter who you are, no matter what you do, to have that knowledge, to create access for everyone.”

Square Peg’s current exhibition Alien Sex Capsule is on until 29 September. and The Dyslexia Portrait runs from 2 October to 11 November.