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Ford and Mellon Foundations Launch the Only National Award for Disabled Artists

Twenty disabled filmmakers, performers, and other creative practitioners across the US will each receive a $50,000 grant ($1 million in total) to pursue their work.

Sky Cubacub, a garment maker from Chicago, is one of the 2020 Disability Future Fellows. (photo by Grace DuVal) (Image Description: A Filipinx nonbinary person throws back their head and smiles joyously. They have tan skin and wear a magenta, purple, and turquoise headpiece ma de of metallic scales. They’re wearing a magenta and green chain link top with protruding sculptural shoulders, colorful gloves with metallic scales, and purple lipstick . )

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed three decades ago, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, but much remains to be done to achieve equal opportunity for the community. When it comes to the arts, however, there is a new and important milestone to celebrate this week: the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are launching “Disability Futures,” the only national award for disabled artists.

“Institutional structures have not served disabled artists in the past,” said Emil Kang, program director for Arts and Culture at the Mellon Foundation. “Disability Futures is the result of listening, collaboration, and humble engagement and we at Mellon are pleased to recognize and support these outstanding artists directly.”

Riva Lehrer, “Alison Bechdel” (2010), charcoal and mixed-media dimensional collage on paper, 30 x 44 x 1 inches, Collection of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian (Image Description: Black and white mixed-media image. Alison Bechdel, a barefoot white person with short dark hair, round glasses, cuffed pants, and a t-shirt, kneels in an aged room. She extends one arm behind her and holds a paintbrush against the wall. The other arm holds a small round mirror to her face as she looks contemplatively. Bechdel is painting a blue outline of a woman smoking and reading a book on the wall and floor behind her.)

Administered by United States Artists, the prize will give twenty disabled filmmakers, performers, and other creative practitioners across the US a $50,000 grant ($1 million in total) to pursue their work over an 18-month period. The 2020 Disability Futures Fellows, announced today, span diverse backgrounds, ages, and disciplines. The group encompasses a majority BIPOC (70%) and Queer artists (75%) and includes creators across a vast array of practices, from choreography and architecture to painting and fashion design.

The fellows have one thing in common, though: they stand out for their artistic brilliance in their respective fields.

Filmmaker Rodney Evans, for instance, won the Special Jury Prize in Drama at the Sundance Film Festival for his feature film Brother To Brother in 2004, and sound artist Christine Sun Kim presented her work “Too Much Future” as part of the Whitney Museum’s ongoing series of public art installations in 2018. Visual artist and writer Riva Lehrer has shown her paintings, primarily depicting people with impairments and people who have been marginalized for their sexuality or gender identity, at institutions that include the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Yale University, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The filmmaker Tourmaline is among the fellows for this year’s program. (photo by June Canedo) (Image Description: A Black nonbinary trans person with a high bun of dark rown hair, teal eye shadow, and burgundy lipstick poses in a wooded area. She looks softly into the camera with one hand placed on her chest and wears a one-shoulder white top that showcases her tattoos.)

“Disability Futures” is the first multidisciplinary award of its kind and scale. (The first ever national prize for disabled artists was the Wynn Newhouse award, established in 2006.)

The fellowship aims to address the absence of disability in the arts as well as issues that are not exclusive to the cultural field, such as the lack of professional development opportunities for disabled people, who face unique financial challenges. They may have high medical expenses or an unstable income due to temporary or low-paying jobs; according to the National Disability Institute, disabled people are twice as likely to earn less than $35,000 annually compared to non-disabled people.

“Artists and creatives provoke us with ideas, adorn us with beauty, and lead us to action. It is critical that we engage with disabled practitioners’ perspectives and elevate their narratives,” said Margaret Morton, director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation, in a statement.

“We hope that this fellowship will prompt more attention for and engagement with disability-led content, productions, and projects in the years to come,” she added.

A photo from the 2016 performance of “Birthing, Dying, Becoming Crip Wisdom,” staged by Patty Berne, a 2020 fellow. (Image Description: On a dramatically lit stage, a Black man in a white suits tands front and center, his knees bent and his arms open. Right behind him, another Black man in a black suit holds him under his arms. In the background, a Black man sits at a pair of drums.)

The complete list of the 2020 Disability Futures Fellows is as follows: Navild (niv) Acosta (dance, music, and visual art); Patty Berne (artistic director, filmmaker, and writer); Eli Clare (poet, essayist); John Lee Clark (writer); Sky Cubacub (garment maker); Jen Deerinwater (journalist, writer, memoirist, and photographer); Rodney Evans (filmmaker); Ryan J. Haddad (playwright and performer); Jerron Herman (dancer); Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (writer and performance artist); Carolyn Lazard (interdisciplinary artist); Jim LeBrecht (film director and producer); Riva Lehrer (painter and writer); Mia Mingus (writer and journalist); Perel (performance artist, dancer, choreographer, and writer); Alice Sheppard (choreographer); Christine Sun Kim (artist); Tourmaline (filmmaker); Alice Wong (journalist); Jeffrey Yasuo Mansfield (designer).

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