Jo Verrent MBE on art, Unlimited and hats

This conversation started last year when I interviewed Jo for a piece I wrote for the ISTD magazine Dance and continued when I heard she was to receive an MBE and be listed the 2020 New Years Honours List.  

Cheerful woman at a podium. She has short hair and glasses and you can only see her arms, upper chest and face
Jo Verrent MBE, image provided by Jo Verrent


tl:dr? No worries…I will summarise in another post soon

CE: How did Unlimited start? I mean I know about ArtsAdmin and Shape Arts getting together but not the details.

JV: The ‘idea’ was that of Arts Council England. They wanted to extend the London 2012 Unlimited and make it into something more. Shape Arts, ArtsAdmin and I responded to that tender… At the time no one knew how it would develop!

CE: When did you first find out about it all?

JV: I was aware of Unlimited from the very start as I was following the development of the Olympic bid closely. I suppose I became [explicitly] aware when I was invited to be part of a day talking about what disabled artists might need or gain from an Olympic year.

CE: How did you get involved?

JV: I had been on the selection panel for the London 2012 version of Unlimited since 2008. I had made video work on commissions and had curated panels for the British Council the Southbank Centre.

I remember writing this just before being asked to join Shape and Artsadmin’s application to the tender –

CE: I l love that blog post and writing style..

JV: Then I got to do my dream role!

CE: Is there one thing in that process that you would have done differently?

JV: Kept better data from the start! We started so quickly that the emphasis was on the work and the artists rather than records and data! I have a much better understanding now of how data can help you spot areas where you should be placing more attention. Jo Verrent MBE, image provided by Jo Verrent.

One big win

CE: Mentioning dance specifically, can you share one big win? From my side I suspect it might be Unlimited’s spectacular international reach. But you might want to say something else.

JV: I can never answer with just one thing. The true success of Unlimited is that it genuinely is about momentum and that momentum being shared by many, many artists. Within dance, it has also been wide;

… to see dancers like Claire Cunningham make truly ground-breaking work that has toured extensively internationally (The Way I Look (At You) Tonight,

… to see dancers move develop their unique choreographic practice like (Chris Pavia with The Journey Between and Joel Brown with 111,

… to have dance artists explore the overlaps with their choreographic practice and their impairments (Aby Watson with -ish and Helen Hall with Inside the Speaker

I also love that a photography exhibition focusing on dance has been one of the most toured things we have ever commissioned. It has – I think – gone to over 20 countries now. It is still as joyous, thought-provoking and relevant as ever (11 Million Reasons to Dance

Lessons Learned

CE: Can you put your finger on one thing that – looking back at when you were young – signalled the career path you were to take?

JV: When I started to lose my hearing I was made to leave music lessons and removed from drama club. The teaching staff felt it would be unfair on me to keep me in spaces where they felt I couldn’t function anymore. This made me furious. I think that it is the fury at being excluded simply due to an impairment that has fuelled my career.

CE: What was your most life-altering experience?

JV: Childbirth and then raising children. It made me realise that my life couldn’t just be about me. It had to be about others.

CE: What one thing do you wish you had known on embarking on this career? 

JV: That it was OK not to know everything and to admit this.

“Stop trying to prove you are ‘good enough’ because you are”

CE: If you bumped into 19-ish year old Jo and wanted to give her one piece of advice, what would it be?

JV: Stop rushing and take your time. You don’t have to try so hard. Stop trying to prove you are ‘good enough’ because you are.

CE: What advice would you give to others?

JV: Get curious about why things are how they are as part of getting angry about them. Try and find out more about the back story, the history and the context. Anger is great, but it is not always constructive. If you want change, you will need to channel the anger into something rather than explode all the time. [Anger is change but] it is just in its raw state.

“I am fascinated by what an equitable, fair and accessible organisation might look like”

CE: This is about your vision of the future. I know that Unlimited is becoming an entity in its own right and that you are looking for Board members, and would like to hear your take on it all.

JV: It is time that Unlimited grew up and found its own way. We have had a great time ‘growing up’ via the incredibly supportive structures of Shape Arts and Artsadmin. Now the programme needs to find its own way.

There are  a number of reasons. The future of funding is not going to be full of strategic pots that can just be used. We need to have a form, a structure and a direction of our own. We have proven a need and we have proven that the work can deliver. Now we need to push as hard on the organisational side as we expect the artists to push on the creative side.

I am fascinated by what an equitable, fair and accessible organisation might look like. I know we will get as much wrong as right, but it is a real privilege to have a go at establishing what one might be.

The art

CE: In disability art terms, MBEs are think on the ground, do you think your recognition will change this or encourage others?

JV: That is a hard one. I think it is such an individual decision. Also, I’m not sure I would agree that honours per se are thin on the ground in disability arts terms. I can think of quite a few! I think that disabled people in the arts sector are quite easy to ’spot’ and are often picked out for recognition. Whether this is fair or appropriate is another matter for another day!

CE: What 3 pieces of art that have most excited you?

JV: Cherophobia by Noemi Lakmaier for its size and scale, audacity and beauty. I just stood and cried. It has what it takes to lift us.

AAntardrishti – InnerVision by Baluji Shrivastav. I never thought I would love this piece as much as I did. With additional visual layers it opened up this music for me in a way that a simple ‘concert’ never could. It gave me a playful gateway into the beauty of Indian music. I saw it over 4 years ago. It is still in my head.

Breathing Room by Anna Berry. When this work finally tours (it has been halted by Covid-19) it will really make an impact. It is atmospheric and haunting yet creates a safe and mesmeric space. I so want it out in the world!

CE: How does Covid-19 make you feel about your future?

JV: I am, by nature, a very optimistic person. Covid has made me think differently as I am in the so called ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ group. These are not words I usually apply to myself. My life – like everyone’s – has changed drastically. I was hopping from city to city, country to country. Now I have been at home for a year. My future will involve less travel for sure, more appreciation of home and of my own access requirements. More time and space for my body to rest. I hope the world learns lessons about the structural inequalities that have been laid bare by the impact of the pandemic globally, but I fear that we aren’t great at learning lessons.

“… only here because of systemic discrimination”

CE: Have you thought about how your name will sit?

JV: Nope. I think about Unlimited and how that will ’sit’ and when the world will have shifted enough to enable it to end. Its only here because of systemic discrimination. Lets remove that discrimination and then remove Unlimited.

CE: Considering we are in lockdown will you get to meet the Queen?

JV: I very much doubt it. The event is likely to be a long while off and a minor royal. That will not stop me combing charity shops for hats, once it is safe for me to go out again.

CE: What next for you, and for Unlimited?

JV: Unlimited goes independent from this April (2021). It cuts its ties entirely from Shape Arts and ArtsAdmin at the end of March 2022. This is a huge shift and a massive change.  It brings with it a large amount of admin, set up and process to deliver. I love doing new things, so ensuring that Unlimited is set up in the best way possible to meet its new mission and values is extremely rewarding and just the right side of scary.