Art is for Everyone

August 18, 2017

I just came back from an amazing event in Austin, Texas, that is put on by the Kennedy Center called the LEAD Conference (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability).  This annual conference is all about making the arts accessible to audiences with disabilities and I learned all kinds of things I had never really considered about reaching these types of audiences. I realize that most of the readers of Artists Only are not necessarily art therapists or concerned with providing arts outreach opportunities, but I feel like I discovered so much about how art can reach everyone that I just have to share. And who better to share it with than a group of artists?

I was honored to represent the Community Arts Center (Danville, KY) – no doubt one of the smallest organizations among the many museums, performance centers, and other fine arts institutions.  If you can think of a major US arts organization – they probably had someone there.  I’d meet people from the Smithsonian, the Field Museum, the Carnegie – even the new Clifford Still museum had representation there.  Even though small arts organizations are fairly common in our region, I sometimes struggled to fully explain what type of work we did.  At the Arts Center, we don’t have a permanent collection. We have short term exhibitions (usually two months), mainly feature local and regional artists (with the exception of our Horizon: Contemporary Landscape juried exhibition) – yet we try to do museum-level engagement in terms of educational content, classes, and field trips.  It makes perfect sense to me, but being among all of these major institutions – I realized that what we do might not be as common as I had initially thought. 

At the conference, I learned that arts accessibility is far more than just having a handicapped ramp, an elevator, and a wheelchair accessible bathroom.  As an artist, sometimes it’s easy to think, “Well, my art’s not for everybody,” and that may be true to a point.  Not everyone will appreciate your art, but you need to make your art accessible to all audiences. 

Keynote speaker Anil Lewis, Executive Director of the Jernigan Institute for the Blind, went blind at the age of 25 from retinitis pigmentosa.  He fully enjoys live theatre and going to the movies – an experience made accessible to him by audio descriptive services.  Audio description involves a person describing the visual cues happening on stage and screen so that people with visual impairment can enjoy the experience and fill in the missing cues.  To demonstrate the frustration that he experiences when the arts are inaccessible, he told the audience, “I have all the answers in a short video onstage, and right here on these papers, if we could pass those out.”  He stood on stage facing a large blank screen while volunteers passed out loose pages.  “Ok, let’s start the video,” still standing there, facing the screen.  “Wait for it…  Ha  Ha… Man, that was funny…  Ok, here’s the serious part…  Wait for it…  Ok… and that’s what we need to know…That sums it all up.”  All the while, nothing was on screen.  The papers that were passed out were all completely blank. The point hit hard. 

I saw all kinds of things that I had never even considered before.  This conference was the first time I had seen live captioning.  A typist in the room was rapid-firing everything that was said by the speaker on stage onto a screen, just like closed-caption television.  They were ridiculously fast and incredibly accurate, despite the speakers trying to throw them off their game on more than a few occasions.  As a visual learner, I often found myself reading the text rather than watching the speaker. 

I learned about 3D recreations of paintings that are made so that people with vision impairments can enjoy the images that we often take for granted.  Some of these re-interpretations were made by ceramics artists that then cast the final results in metal while others were printed on a 3D printer with raised surfaces and textures representing lines and colors.  Imagine only hearing descriptions of a Van Gogh painting, but never getting to fully grasp its arrangement or composition, and it’s not hard to grasp that a 3D version of a 2D painting could be a quite valuable asset.  In one session, participants tried to draw a work of abstract art based on the audio description.  I tried my hardest to take in all the details as the description was read aloud, “On the upper left hand side of the painting, a large red triangle, tilted slightly to the right with another smaller red triangle directly below it rests atop a black line that cuts through the center of the canvas.”  These details went on and on, and it was definitely hard to keep up.  It was very apparent that 3D models would be a great tool to accommodate “viewers” with vision impairments.

I also learned how poseable dolls could be used to allow people with vision impairments to feel what the different ballet poses might look like.  A docent or interpreter would pose the doll, allowing the visitor to quickly feel the form and imagine the movements on stage.

Perhaps most intriguing was a simultaneous three-way translation of Russian Sign Language into English, and then into American Sign Language.  Vlad Kolesnikov, from the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Russia, would use Russian Sign Language – which would then be interpreted into spoken English by one of his coworkers while another interpreter would translate her spoken words into ASL.  It was a bit like watching a game of tennis to see the whole conversation flow seamlessly among the three interpreters.

One of the biggest takeaways that I got from this conference was that the outreach that these organizations didn’t necessarily need to be overthought or complicated.  An organization called Arts & Minds had an outreach premise that seemed simple yet incredibly effective.  I’m sure there was much more to it, but the gist of their program was to identify several patients with Alzheimer’s and meet with them to look at and discuss art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  I caught myself wishing that I had the collection of the Met for such a program, but realized that it didn’t necessarily take a Rembrandt painting to lead a great, thought-provoking and therapeutic afternoon discussion of art.

As an artist, sometimes it can be frustrating to put your work out there and wonder, “does anybody care about this stuff at all?”  Apparently they do.  People you couldn’t even imagine appreciating your art are eager to experience it in whatever way they can.  Blind people are curious about visual art.  The deaf community is curious about music.  People with autism are curious about abstract art.  Even though these individuals with disabilities might not experience your art the way that most people do, they can all appreciate it within their own capacity IF you are able to make it accessible to them.  So, next time you’re painting a picture, composing a song, or learning a new dance – think about how the work you are creating could be enjoyed by everyone, because if you make your work in a way that can touch these diverse audiences, I guarantee they will appreciate it in ways that you cannot imagine.