Making Art Accessible to All

Art, Accessibility, Life
Ipek from Supersense
5 minutes reading time
December 5, 2020

Art is a powerful tool—a great way of expressing feelings and ideas. But galleries and museums can sometimes be less engaging for blind visitors for a number of reasons. Artworks being kept behind glass walls, red ropes, and don’t touch signs are the norm when it comes to art spaces. And sometimes, especially contemporary art might feel intimidating; many people feel like they don’t “understand” it. However, art is often more than understanding what a specific piece is about. It is interacting and experiencing. And it should not always precisely have to be in ways in which the artist or curator meant it to be.

An all white art gallery where a number of abstract paintings are hung on the walls and a person stands in front of one.
Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

Great works don’t have to be “seen”

In an old piece of Kristy Bird on the NFB website, she says something significant: “Since art is the articulation of the shapes and spaces of the world around us and the expression of our inner thoughts and emotions, we can all understand art, given the proper tools.”

The art is explained and understood in many ways, especially while teaching it. One way is through its form and shape. Raised surfaces and 3D forms accompanied with descriptions are helpful: what is located where, how big is the artwork and descriptions of color and other visual cues. Another way is to introduce people to the artist’s world. The movement the artist is part of, how he or she approached the world, the historical and political context the artwork was created in, etc. All of these approaches, dependent on the artwork and the context, can be of great importance when it comes to transmitting the message. That being the case, the chance of interacting with art should be given to anyone who would like to feel art as it is. This is where accessibility comes in.

While reading the transcript of a Supersense user interview, I came across a comment which struck me very hard. The discussion was about the crappy ads on billboards that seem to invade our cities nowadays, things we sighted people would rather prefer to unsee. The user in the interview was saying that she would like to be given a chance to see those crappy ads and then decide for herself if she would like to see them or not. But being denied that possibility is what can make blind or low vision people feel excluded from our highly visual world.

Accessible artworks

Luckily in the last couple of years, awareness about making art more accessible started to become widespread. With major museums joining the game, such as the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, accessibility of artistic spaces is now part of the discussion in the worlds of art and architecture.

Making art accessible to people with various disabilities takes many forms. In some cases, artists themselves, whether they are blind or have low vision or not, prefer to create art that is accessible to all. For example, Roy Nachum is an artist who embeds braille and extended descriptions into his artworks. Though he is not blind or visually impaired, one incident made him consider making his work more tactile and letting people experience it by touching the piece. A couple of years ago, when he came across braille signage in a museum, he started to look at his works differently: “My hope is to strike a variety of emotional chords with blind readers/viewers that is similar, but not identical to what different people with sight take away from a painting. I wanted to test our reliance on what we see and force different viewers to re-orient their perception of a work by also employing their sense of touch. Our visual sense is far more complex than we realize. Memory and imagination play a major part in our interpretation of what is actually in front of us, I want to ‘Open People’s Eyes.’”

Another painter Cris de Diego adds detailed audio descriptions and text for blind people. The artist, who is also blind due to her Type I diabetes, was an avid museum-goer before losing her sight. When she realized that she wouldn’t be able to do it as she used to, she decided to create art accessible to blind and visually impaired people. She says the reason that she makes detailed audio descriptions is that the size of the painting, the number of the figures, and their locations are all substantial - something that is missing even in the social media alt texts.  

Andrew Myers, a sighted artist, is making screw paintings. His art is comprised of thousands of screws, fastened on a special board. The paintings have their own topography, which makes them accessible to people with visual impairments. You can check his story about creating art that is meant to be touched here.

John Bramblitt, a well-known blind painter is using touch and color to create his paintings. He says that art helps him to overcome his depression and opened a whole new world: "Art reshaped my life. Everyone has an artist somewhere in them; sometimes they just need a little help letting it out.” Now he is organizing workshops where he teaches to paint to people, sighted or not, and uses adaptive techniques for people with disabilities. You check his works here, and listen to his interview our host Shane here.

Some good practices in the artworld

Making tactile art or incorporating detailed audio descriptions is one way of approaching this. However, not all artists are working in 3D, and there are thousands of classic artworks waiting to be discovered by people with visual impairments. And this is where museums, galleries, and art institutions should step in. ARCHES for example, is a European Union project dedicated to making European museums barrier-free with 3D art replicas, mobile phone apps, games, and sign language video avatars.

After some lawsuits against art galleries caused quite a stir in 2019, some of the major institutions started to pay attention to how their do-not-touch, super silent, sterile policies are excluding a significant portion of the population. Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Smithsonian and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York were some of the big shots that decided to cater to a wide variety of audiences with image descriptions, alt text, and audio tours. Accessibility options on their websites are hidden somewhere at the bottom of their webpages, however, baby steps are steps as well.

Not only prominent players are working towards an inclusive art experience. Tactile Studio and Wellcome Collection are two art galleries that try to remove barriers between art and people. In Spain Museum for the Blind is dedicated to helping blind and visually impaired meeting with great pieces of art and architecture. With 3D models that are especially created to be touched, a selection of great works is waiting for their audiences.

These are the examples of on-site aids that help blind and visually impaired audiences to experience art. But in times of the ongoing pandemic and partial lockdowns, we might not be able to go and wander about the museums as we’d like to. But it doesn’t mean that we cannot experience the outer world and even art from our living rooms. Vocaleyes is a great UK-based website that brings art to your computer screens. In their periodic posts called intervals, they announce their upcoming events, live or recorded, accessible to blind and visually impaired audiences.

Lou Giansante’s website, who is a writer, producer, and consultant that designs and consults audio tours in art, history, and science museums for years, is an excellent resource for audioguides of exhibitions in various museums.

Last but not least, Carolyn Lazard’s book Accessibility in the Arts: a promise and a practice is a great place to start. Its recommendations and its ability to put disability and accessibility in larger context are quite eye-opening. Even though it is written as a guidebook for small scale art organizations, it is a good read for people interested in the arts and how to make them accessible to everyone.

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