Written by Dr. Christopher Smit, DisArt Director

The success of any arts festival, ArtPrize and DisArt Festival included, is directly linked to the variety of people who are invited to participate in its programs. Consequently, the organizations which are responsible for creating and maintaining places for the arts in cities and towns across the country must grapple with the ever-changing concept of access.

Access, or its commonly phrased adjective accessibility, is an arduous concept for arts organizations because it's meaning can be as fleeting as that of art itself. The growing understanding of, and commitments to, universal access in the world of design is at least a nod towards a new appreciation of making the world of art and objects available to all. But even in the context of this newfound invitation in which everyone be accounted for in the cultural sphere of the arts, the manners in which this might take shape are still puzzling.

How do arts organizations make visual arts accessible to people with visual impairments? How can a sound installation be enjoyed by Deaf culture? How can a exhibition in an early 19th century home become traversable by a 21st-century wheelchair user? How can an art gallery be made into a “safe space” for a person with autism?

These questions often lead to the overarching question of funding, as in “how are we going to pay for these accommodations?”

Indeed, for most arts organizations, limited budgets are already pinching the potential of programming, forcing directors and staff to be “creative” when it comes to things like advertising, promotion, communication strategies, and production costs. An example of creating “creative access” is the SiTE:Lab: Rumsey Street Project at this year’s ArtPrize. Beholden to a small number of granting organizations and the generosity of philanthropists, many local and national arts festivals make do with limited resources. And for the most part, the creativity applied to this financial stringency usually leads to unexpected outcomes. Cultural partnerships are forged in order to get the work done, in-kind donations of time and energy help organizations add new ambassadors for their missions, and the project becomes owned by an entire community rather than just a small team of employees.

ArtPrize is modeling this type of creativity in its new relationship with DisArt and its continued relationship with disability advocates in the city of Grand Rapids, including Disability Advocates of Kent County in the development of the ArtPrize Oasis. By reaching out to different organizations who can add their expertise in the areas of access, ArtPrize not only gains cultural partners but also crucial insight into the at-times elusive process of providing access.

It’s this creativity and willingness to think differently about potential hiccups (financial or otherwise) that, in the end, should help the arts organization become more accessible to their potential constituents and audiences. Access making must be a creative process, one of flexibility, openness, and dialogue.

ArtPrize and DisArt will be initiating projects that attempt to think creatively about making the work they both do more available and accessible. Whenever possible, money will be spent in order to expand the ArtPrize and DisArt audiences to include all people regardless of ability. A great example of this can be seen through the inclusion of an American Sign Language interpreter at most public events. However, alongside this financial commitment to more standardized accommodations, both organizations are committed to empowering its audiences through a wide range of activities that will encourage participation from everyone in Grand Rapids and beyond.

So, how does an organization transform an experience of visual arts for people with visual impairments? Efforts can be made to gather and exhibit work like this year’s Urban Institute for Contemporary Art’s Sense that is “touchable,” offering multiple sensory experiences for single works of art. The sound artist can be encouraged to offer alternative explanations of her work in order to allow a member of the Deaf community to get meaning from the work in a new and exciting way. The 21st century wheelchair user might take benefit from a simple solution like a video screen or online feed of the inner walls of a non-accessible 19th-century home. Might the artist do a walk-through once a day with a GoPro camera?

When arts organizations begin to think creatively about access, the potential for art to communicate meaning enlarges. As pointed out here, we are already on our way to doing this good work. Yet in order for that work to flourish, the communities that ArtPrize and DisArt serve must take part. In other words, an accessible festival becomes even more feasible when it happens within the context of an accessible city. The City of Grand Rapids is already made several efforts to make our downtown area more accessible. Looking beyond these municipal actions, we need attitudinal shifts in all citizens. Access needs to matter to all of us in order for this to work.

The invitation stands… We need your help. Tell us what you think, participate in public dialogues, come to events that promote the creation of accessibility, and encourage neighbors to do the same.

By Amelea Pegman on