The Challenges of Making Art Accessible

An Ottawa conference shows why galleries and museums need more than ramps to make them enjoyable for everyone.

By Tom Spears , The Ottawa CitizenOctober 3, 2009

OTTAWA — Canada’s museums and art galleries are filled with wonderful things, an Ottawa conference has heard. Now, if only everyone could see and enjoy them.

Gallery and museum staff from across Canada spent the past four days at the National Gallery, mulling over the problems: What does “accessible” mean once the ramps are built? What if no one on staff understands sign language? How can a blind person get the most from an art gallery?

The conference “is timely in terms of the research that the gallery has been conducting for the past several years (about) the needs of visitors with disabilities,” said Megan Richardson, chief of education and public programs at the gallery.

“There has been an expressed need from museums and galleries from across Canada for support in this area.”

An example: “We have the Stimulating the Senses program which brings together people with and without disabilities in one group to explore the artworks through sense other than sight.”

There are tactile tours (put on gloves, touch the sculptures) and tour guides who can describe the visual aspects such as colour, or shapes that can’t be touched. There are also sign language interpreters who book appointments in advance.

“Even with the boomers and aging population, we’re going to see more and more Canadians with disabilities,” Richardson said. “It’s just so much more than ramps and doors with buttons (i.e. openers) on them. It’s seating for visitors who might have mobility impairments. It’s good light levels. It’s readable text. It’s all those things, so the gallery is sensitive to those needs on the part of visitors and does all it can.

“It’s an open dialogue, and ongoing.”

Even so, there are tricky choices to make.

If a museum is going to let disabled visitors handle the art, “you don’t take a few objects of no value and create a disability program out of them,” said Nina Levent of the Art Beyond Sight Institute in New York. The art for disabled people has to be art of the same high quality that’s offered to the rest of a gallery’s visitors, she said.

People at the conference did not all have kind things to say about one of Ontario’s artistic bragging points: the redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario.

Though the gallery has the ramps and other features required for modern buildings, it has drawn an attack that began in the blog “Frank Gehry hates disabled people.” (Gehry is the architect.)

The anonymous blogger argued that the “alienating” gallery divides its visitors into two groups — “people who are worthy” of access to culture, and those like the elderly, disabled, or people with young children who are cut off from it by difficulty in getting around the building.

“I’m so thankful that they put that out into the world, and that they put it in writing,” said Syrus Marcus Ware, the program co-ordinator for youth at AGO.

She said the gallery has gone through a massive re-thinking of its existence, beginning as the new design was being planned, and has poured its efforts into trying to serve a wider population. This includes free nights for people who can’t afford to pay admission, and better access for disabled visitors.

But she said there are always staff who feel defensive and resist change. The outside criticism, she said, “gave us a great push.”

A conference-goer from Niagara Region said Ontario government accessibility experts are telling municipalities the new AGO is an example of what not to build.

“Disability is just a group all of us will enter into at some point in our lives,” the National Gallery’s Elizabeth Sweeney told the conference. “That’s just having a human body.”

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