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She crips the arts to pave the way for new perspectives and possibilities

Dr. Eliza Chandler on her experience as the first PWD artistic director of Tangled Art + Disability. Disability culture has grown so much in the last 20 years,” says Chandler. “In the early aughts it wasn’t a question that it was run by non-disabled people.

When Dr. Eliza Chandler started her role as artistic director of Tangled Art + Disability, external link in 2014, she was the first person with a disability to take helm of the arts organization. 

“Disability culture has grown so much in the last 20 years,” says Chandler. “In the early aughts it wasn’t a question that it was run by non-disabled people.  There wasn’t a huge selection of disabled arts administrators to choose from because of systemic barriers.”

And the difference by bringing Chandler in can’t be understated—this change in leadership brought them from putting on an annual festival dependent on donors to growing the organization to offer year-round programming with a sustainable funding model.

In the early 2000s, Tangled’s annual festival exhibited art and artists from outside Canada, particularly from the U.K. But there had been massive growth of the community of Canadian artists with disabilities, and the first festival Chandler helped put on in spring 2015, called Strange Beauty, external link, was entirely made up of local talent. 

Chandler decided to show the work throughout 401 Richmond St., a downtown building full of fellow creatives in which Tangled had an office. “There were so many wheelchairs in that space and a fleet of ASL interpreters—we truly cripped the space,” says Chandler. 

A week later, the management of 401 Richmond St. approached Chandler letting her know a gallery space opened up—and asked if Tangled wanted to take it to showcasing exhibits year-round. 

While that was a huge change for Tangled, Chandler wanted to ensure that the work the organization was doing could be sustained. So she worked with the organization’s executive director to secure operational funding from arts councils, so Tangled wouldn’t have to chase project-based funding every year. 

At the same time, she took on the role at Tangled, she became a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Disability Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University, where she is now an associate professor. She married her curatorial world with her academic world through her research, particularly through a ground-breaking SSHRC-funded project, “Bodies in Translation.”

Along with Dr. Carla Rice at the University of Guelph, Chandler co-leads the multidisciplinary project which blends theory and practice as it researches and cultivates activist art from a decolonizing and cripped lens. The project focuses on disability art, Deaf art, Mad art, ageing and elder art and fat art, and explores the relationship between this work and achieving social and political justice. 

Tangled is the project’s main community partner. “[Bodies in Translation] has been phenomenal in allowing me to maintain that connection to Tangled and also maintain a current research agenda on disability arts,” says Chandler. 

Not only has Chandler opened doors for fellow artists through these two projects and her teaching and research at TMU, she has also worked with the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) to ensure more artists with disabilities have access to funding to pursue their work. 

That work was initially partly inspired by how Chandler articulated why Tangled was deserving of sustaining public funding, making the connection of how arts has excluded not only disabled people but also BIPOC artists and others.

That rationale helped establish a stream at the OAC for artists with disabilities. Unfortunately, the first call-out for projects felt a bit flat. The arts council wanted to know why, so Chandler was enlisted to conduct focus groups with artists across the province to see why they didn’t apply. 

There were two significant findings. First, the definition of a professional artist meant an applicant had to have gone to school in a related discipline or had a certain number of exhibits—it automatically was exclusive. And second, the money received through a grant could mean an artist was no longer eligible for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which provides monthly funds to cover basic needs.

This information led the arts council to change their definition of “professional artist” and the provincial government to change their policies to allow ODSP recipients’ to receive arts funding without disruption to their monthly payments. And it’s one more way that Chandler has helped not only make room for artists with disabilities, but also opportunities for everyone to have access to this perspective. 

“Rather than saying we are disabled people and we can do art just like everyone else, we want to be shaping culture in a way that works for us,” says Chandler. 

This article is part of the Made of Grit Series from Toronto Metropolitan University. Please check out torontomu.ca/grit for more information.

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