Ted Little

John Fo
Sunday 05 September 1999 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


TED LITTLE was instrumental in transforming the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London from a club for the self-absorbed of Kensington to a roaring popular venue which still attracts young abrasive artists. As Director of the ICA from 1974 to 1977 he imported community art and street art and made entrance free for artists. The story goes that a million Londoners decided they were artists and to accommodate them all Little had to remove the chairs and even the files.

Little's approach at the ICA grew out of his involvement with the arts lab movement. From 1971 to 1974, and again in 1977-82, he was head of the Birmingham Arts Laboratory, an arts and performance space dedicated to radical research into art and creativity. Little invited artists to participate and provided the management necessary for the survival of an arts collective. The idea of creative research has spread and is now embedded in many countries and many organisations.

He loved people and nourished artists and made them feel at ease. Some of those he inspired have become very famous - like Victoria Wood, John Dowie, Sue Townsend and Keith Allan. Little commissioned wild and wonderful (and, to some, garish) poster designs to draw people to the ICA, using such designers as Ken and Annie Meharg, with whom he typically stayed friends.

The son of a Methodist minister, Little was born in 1943 in Co Limerick. After school at the Methodist College in Belfast he worked for a time in an administrative post in the Civil Service, before taking a degree at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry from 1967 to 1970. He organised the arts festival there in 1970 before moving to Birmingham Arts Lab.

At Birmingham, Little established relationships with a variety of touring companies. In 1972 he hired our arts company Welfare State International to perform Winter Rising, a three day Brueghel-style carnival encampment in the centre of the Coventry campus. He wasn't directly responsible for the Ufo alert in Coventry that night - part of the performance involved helium-filled, silver sculptures, set flying above the city - though he was abducted by aliens; well, he did he disappear with our cheque for three months. We were paid eventually but only Little could have got away with it (and remained a friend).

One day he didn't get away with it. In 1985 he fell downstairs and broke his neck. The story of his accident has been embroidered, not least by Little himself. The version I like best is that on Christmas Eve he was overreaching himself, stretching for one of those garish radical posters on top of a bookcase. He was offering a gift to a stranger who had knocked at his door. He was full of generosity and aspiration, love of art and unpredictability, laughter and foolishness.

Afterwards, paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair, he remained influential on the boards and panels of numerous arts organisations both regionally, especially in the East Midlands, and nationally. In addition, he became a tireless champion of disability causes and took on all challenges with inspirational enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. With incredible bravery he never gave up and indeed he discharged himself early from Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where he had remained after the accident, in order to become to become the Director of Northampton Arts Centre in 1985.

In June 1988, during his two-year period as Director of Artsline Information (the information and advice service for disabled people on arts and entertainment), he was pushed round London arts venues by a journalist, checking out accessibility to wheelchair users. The subsequent article in The Independent made depressing reading, but helped stimulate thinking about "total access". He continued to be involved actively in the arts. In 1991 he directed a successful community play in All Saints Church in Milton Keynes Village - the church of his funeral service.

Over a year ago he nearly died in hospital. I visited and remember the extraordinary affection, loyalty and care shown by all the nursing staff. I also recall Little was still suffering and could not speak. I was wittering on about the interminable bureaucracy of arts funding when Ted looked at me with a beady eye, reached for a leaking biro and scribbled on a tissue, "Hang on to the poetry." I hope we have. Lanternhouse, Welfare State's centre for celebratory arts based in Ulverston in Cumbria, is certainly inspired by the arts labs.

Only Ted Little, at a week's notice, could jet off - tubes, pills, Guinness, wheelchair, new carer, bedsores and all - for a final package beano in Egypt. He developed a worse sore while crossing a desert. This precipitated his death two weeks and two days later back in Milton Keynes. His coffin was played out at his funeral in New Orleans style by Lol Coxhill's rich lamenting soprano saxophone. Sympathies are especially felt for Pat Swell, his tireless supporter and wife, who was also courageous and immensely self-effacing.

Edwin Frith Little, arts administrator: born Adare, Co Limerick 14 January 1943; Director, Birmingham Arts Laboratory 1971-74, 1977-82; Director, ICA 1974-77; Director, Northampton Arts Centre 1985-87; Director, Artsline 1987-89; married 1982 Pat Swell; died Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire 31 July 1999.

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