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wheelchair track at Holton Lee

Susan Austin - Freewheeling into leadership

Susan Austin is the lead artist of a not-for-profit organisation, Freewheeling , based in the South West. Freewheeling focuses on researching theoretical frames for Disability Arts and for an integrated artistic practice between non-disabled and disabled artists. It also engages in academic research. Susan is an award-winning artist in her own right. In 2008, she won the Holton Lee Open Judges' Choice Award and undertook a residency at Holton Lee to create pieces for her forthcoming show, 'Freewheeling - traces from a wheelchair', in 2009 she was awarded the Natalie Sitar Award for Outstanding Achievement by the Fine Art Department at University of Plymouth. She is also part of the Sync Intensives programme.

So where does Susan feel her own leadership journey began?

Sue Austin at a flipchart, sticking on post it notes to a list of leadership styles

Starting out...

In February 2010, she attended a Equality South West seminar in Bristol ‘Steppping Up to The Board – Increasing Diversity in Public Appointments’ .

This is the first event that I attended (by accident) that empowered me to think that my personal experiences and learning derived from the experience of disability may put me in a unique position to contribute to cultural leadership. It also helped me to understand that this experience was being actively sought out by statutory and non-statutory agencies and meant that, when I heard of the opportunity, I applied to ‘Leaders into Leading’ course, run by Sync. I would not have applied to Leaders into Leading if I had not attended this course first.

The Leaders into Leading course, held at the Arnolfini in Bristol, was one of Sync’s introductory sessions. It aimed to provide an introduction to leadership theory in an accessible environment, with a ‘disability twist’.

This course completely opened up my understanding of what a leadership role could be. It helped me realise that I was engaging in an artistic practice that could already be considered to be contributing to cultural leadership in a small, local way. Attending the ‘Leaders into Leading Course’ reframed the concept of leadership for me, built my confidence and meant that I decided to apply for the Sync Intensives programme, part of the Cultural Leadership Programme.

Sue Austin and other members of Sync Intensives at the Wellcome Centre

Moving forward

From here, Susan was able to identify a number of different channels she could engage with, and also realised that she, herself, could be part of shaping the opportunities. In March and April 2010 she attended a series of sessions run by Kalido Arts in the South West. Here she learnt to focus on the core elements that need to be in place when developing a socially engaged artistic practice that facilitates a cultural leadership role. Susan was then selected for one of ten places on the ACE Funded LUAN network (set up by LinkUpArts) to develop the careers of professional disabled artists in the South West by providing experience of engaging with mainstream cultural settings (eg Spike Island, Salisbury Arts Centre, etc). As well as being a primary instigator in identifying the need for this development, Susan was consulted on the development of the practicalities of implementing this concept and fed into the resulting successful bid to the Arts Council under the Impact Funding Project.

Sue Austin and Jez Colborne at the Bristol Sync Intensives day

Sync Intensives

Of course, she also joined Sync Intensives. We asked her what she felt the impact of being part of this programme had been on her:

Being part of this process has built my confidence and given me the self-belief and skills to start to develop a not-for-profit organisation (Freewheeling). I have also applied to be a panel member on an Arts Council Impact Fund Panel and have put in my first bid for Research and Development funding for a project called ‘Testing the Water’. It has also enabled me to start to build networks within the Disability Arts Community and see examples of a varied range of leadership roles taken up by the other participants of Sync Intensives. There have been some very inspiring articles from fellow Sync members exploring the understanding they have arrived at with regards to their leadership style. These have helped me to analyse and develop a deeper understanding of my leadership style and the ways in which I am able to lead in the context of physical and cognitive challenges.

a photo of sue austin in her wheelchair underwater

Artistic work

Artistically, Susan is most know for her iconic image Submerged I Stand Proud (pictured here) which shows her in her chair underwater, hair flowing free.

Susan is currently working on the Arts Council Funded Research and Development project ‘Testing the Water!” which is running until April 2011, enabling her to gain experience of a wide range of project management issues and experience of a complex and demanding leadership role. This will include oversight of financial controls, the skills to develop and maintain multilayered networks, concept development and the demands of holding together complex collaborations to facilitate the development of a large scale spectacular performance of a self-propelled underwater NHS wheelchair that leaves ‘traces’ of its freedom as it sweeps through water with its human occupant. The aim of that work is to use dramatic and unexpected juxtapositions to attach new and powerful narratives to the objecthood of the wheelchair. The modus operandi of the project is to create symbiotic partnerships which act to strengthen the position of Disability Arts and disabled artists. This will be achieved by linking in with the project partners in a way that creates the maximum benefit for both parties..

The aim is to extend the project through Unlimited, part of the Cultural Olympiad, and it has already been programmed as part of B-side multimedia Arts Festival to take place alongside the Olympics/ Paralympic sailing events, based at Weymouth and Portland, in June 2012.

She was also recently shortlisted for the Adam Reynold Memorial Bursary, and interviewed at The Baltic in November 2010.

Susan is working towards attaining her MA in Fine Art, at the University of Plymouth. Working on this simultaneously enables her to explore the theoretical aspects of her work more fully. She is very interested in developing a long term socially engaged artistic practice that is sustainable and accessible, underpinned by theoretical frames that will support the work of Freewheeling and impact on other disabled artists nationally. In particular, Susan is interested, through Freewheeling, in considering innovative solutions to help address the financial vulnerability of many disabled artists when trying to move into paid employment.


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diane vazquez

what an amazing woman! Truly an inspiration. I have been postponing the realization that I will be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life and dreading it as my abilities diminish from ASL. Susan made me see it is a beginning of a new life not the end. Thank You so much.

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