by Christiana Myers
Many Canadian art institutions assert their desire to be considered gathering spaces for diverse communities while claiming tenets of inclusion and openness. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, most, if not all, were forced to close their doors to the public and find other ways of engaging with their audiences. The term “accessibility” has been circulated widely in order to encompass an alternative to the conventional institutional experience. While many organizations’ responsive new methods of engagement proved meaningful, they also served to eclipse demands for access that had been made consistently by disability arts communities for years. These ostensibly innovative methods of engagement include increased digital access to collections, livestream artist talks, virtual tours, and the digitization of publications, to name a few. In other words, the same practices that disabled, crip, Deaf, and neurodivergent artists and audiences had been requesting were suddenly being fast tracked for the convenience of the general—and non-disabled—public. In the process of reopening, institutions continue to make further operational adaptations, many of which would benefit disabled and chronically ill visitors, like wider paths of access (the suggested turning radius for a wheelchair is nearly that of social distancing), augmented sanitation practices, and a reduction in the number of simultaneous visitors. These previously unprioritized accommodations are now being carried out as standard practice. The question now is if increased multi-dimensional accessibility in art galleries will become an embraced and sustained part of post-pandemic institutional practice.
Whether physically, intellectually, socially, or economically, entire communities continue to be left out of conversations and out of museum and gallery spaces that claim to be for everyone. In 2017, students and faculty members of the department of Applied Research & Innovation and the School of Media Studies & Information Technology at Humber College with artists from Tangled Art + Disability in Toronto developed the Accessibility Toolkit, which uses knowledge and leadership from the disability arts community to suggest best practices for exhibition catalogues, lighting, language use, signage, and more.1 In its opening pages, institutional approaches to accessibility are broken down concisely into two distinct methods of framing disability within the arts sector—the medical model and the social model. Many institutions continue to rely on the medical model of disability, which defines an individual as disabled based on their impairments or differences, and suggests that physical, sensory, or mental limitations can and should be treated by the medical field. In practice, this model contributes to othering disability communities by directing blame toward an individual’s limitations rather than toward the barriers to access that are built and enforced around them. Considering accessibility through the medical model may also encourage a misguided sense of institutional accomplishment when physical access alone is granted. The social model, on the other hand, was developed by people with disabilities, and addresses disability as a social construct made up of structural, cultural, economic, or attitudinal barriers that exist outside of individual difference. For example, a wheelchair is not the reason a person cannot enter a space—the steps are. The social model serves to identify the causes of exclusion and suggests that inclusion is not constituted by the addition of surface-layer accommodations, but rather the removal of barriers that extend deep into institutional function.
Meaningful inclusion practices that allow for fluid, intuitive, and flexible access to institutions and their programming have the capacity to enrich the engagement of a diverse range of visitors, blurring the hard lines between disability accommodation and alternative gallery experiences. By looking critically at the responses of institutions in implementing their COVID-19 coping and reopening strategies with the social model of disability in mind, an undercurrent of ableism is revealed. While these new services and precautions, intended to counteract illness, distress, and isolation, are valued and encouraged, they were frequently deemed too expensive or too radical until they became a concern of the masses. Until now, communities who were made vulnerable by art spaces were expected to navigate around barriers and adapt their behaviour to function within ableist systems under the medical model. However, when gallery engagement was interrupted for the “typical” visitor, institutions responded quickly, allotting human and financial resources to these new services. What these institutions had evidently overlooked is that inclusion is neither exclusively required nor exclusively enjoyed by specialized minority audiences, but actually serves to benefit visitorship more broadly.
As Sean Lee, Tangled’s director of programming, put it in a discussion over Zoom, “You don’t need to be disabled to experience ableism.” Accommodations and access are not about revising a world that some miss out on but, rather, thinking about new avenues of engagement. Tangled’s executive director, Cyn Rozeboom, described this perspective as “hacking,” essentially reimagining the ways that institutional output can be created and experienced in a way that prioritizes flexibility in order to navigate changing— and even conflicting access needs. Tangled’s 2020 curator in residence, Max Ferguson, went on to emphasize the importance of empowerment: that these shifts begin with thinking of accessible programming as complimentary rather than as charity. Oppressive language and framing, like allusions to the “fight against” disability, do not allow individuals or institutions to move beyond pathological perspectives of difference. The threat of COVID-19 has provided a glimpse into the often rejected universality of illness and vulnerability to the human population. While newer modes of access like podcasts, streaming content, or audio guides could be interpreted as frivolous conveniences for able audiences, it also means that the spectrum of users of these tools widens, encouraging developers to funnel more resources toward their development—and, perhaps most importantly, toward their use becoming normalized. As audiences gain familiarity with engagement tools that can be opted into as needed—rather than creating scenarios where people endure barriers in order to avoid segregation—systems of ableism can be dismantled.
Alexis Bulman is an artist from Prince Edward Island, currently based in Montreal, whose practice focuses on trust, belonging, and access in public space. Her work frequently addresses the hyperawareness that people with disabilities can have of their bodies in daily life, and particularly in public spaces like art institutions. In my conversation with Bulman, she stated that the demands for alternative modes of access spurred by the lockdown have encouraged greater institutional awareness of the bodies of their visitors, which she hopes will have a lasting impact, whether audiences are engaging with content from home or entering a physical space. Following the completion of a nine-month Interrogating Access residency at OBORO in Montreal, Bulman had just secured an exhibition opportunity at Artspace in Peterborough for the work she produced when the pandemic lockdown struck in March 2020. This forced her, along with the exhibition’s curator, Hannah Keating, and collaborating artist Aislinn Thomas to make the decision either to postpone for a year or to move forward with an online model, shedding the usual trappings of a gallery exhibition— no opening reception, no live performance, and no live workshop or artist talk. Having produced several bodies of work related to accessibility and her own experience with scoliosis, Bulman had already been working toward making the pieces accessible through digital methods such as 360-degree photography, and working with Thomas on audio descriptions and closed captioning.
The exhibition, titled MAKE/SHIFT, which opened and went live in September, explores ableism in the gallery setting. Five of Bulman’s sculptures from her Remodel series and a video-performance installation titled Tending To address the physical and ideological barriers frequently put in place by art spaces. All of the works and their associated text are made available both in the gallery and online; however, the ways that they are experienced in these environments differ. Online, viewers can find installation shots and image descriptions of the exhibition in its entirety, 360-degree photographs of the sculptures, and the video work with described audio. As one of the galleries at Artspace has been rendered inaccessible by stairs, Bulman created a scenario that makes it impossible for in-person visitors to be able to optimally view the video installation by barricading the entrance. This initiates an isolation dynamic that parallels that of the COVID-19 lockdown and one all too familiar to gallery visitors—or aspiring gallery visitors—with limited mobility. Viewers are then required to go online in order to see the video in full and are thereby subject to othering by seeing an artwork through alternative means—reinforcing that access alone does not produce an equitable experience. In the curatorial statement, Keating writes, “A makeshift is something that serves as a temporary substitute—a sufficient device for now, but one that will be replaced when an improved solution comes along; in this work, Bulman suggests there is somewhere else for her and you to go and invites visitors to participate in reimagining what access should and could look like today.”2 Also available online is a collaborative workshop called archive of sensation hosted by Bulman and Thomas. In it, participants are asked to describe what they see or feel when experiencing Bulman’s work with prompts developed by Thomas. They are encouraged to respond in any medium with which they feel comfortable including writing, voice recording, or drawing in order to acknowledge the scope of sensory methods that can be used in experiencing and interpreting artwork. Thomas hopes that online access strategies like captioning and streaming will continue beyond the reopening of galleries and museums, at the same time acknowledging that “virtual access cannot be an excuse for [galleries] not doing the work required to remove barriers to in-person participation” upon reopening. As Bulman states, it is imperative that artworks and exhibitions be produced through the lens of accessibility rather than adding it on as an institutional formality.
The precariousness of the pandemic, with many people working from home and others losing employment altogether, has given curators, educators, and audiences a glimpse into a concept called “crip time.” Crip time is a flexible approach to understanding and experiencing time that prioritizes comfort and care and subverts ableist expectations related to productivity, levels of output, and conventional professionalism. In “Crips and COVID in Canada” by Esther Ignagni, Eliza Chandler, and Loree Erickson, the authors suggest that although COVID time is not equivalent to crip time, it is still a valuable starting point for understanding and, moreover, can offer “crip hope”—that is, to have faith that some of these adapted practices rooted in disability access will become standardized. With increased criticality toward the use of public spaces and a commitment to community wellness and care, the removal of barriers and the creation of alternative pathways of access will be prioritized. Whereas COVID time is unplanned and must be constantly navigated, crip time is “built collectively, maintained, and sustained.”3
Meaningful inclusion has the capacity to be transformational. In shifting from the medical model, currently embedded in the bureaucratic and oppressive frameworks of many institutions, toward the social model—which ultimately better suits the gathering places that art spaces claim to be—there lies the capacity to plan, design, build, curate, and program for access from the ground up. Disability access is not a problem to be dealt with or a series of requirements to meet, but rather a lens that can be respectfully utilized to enrich the engagement experience and well-being of all visitors. The sweeping sense of vulnerability brought on by COVID-19 has increased awareness of the precarious nature of safety and comfort inherent to many public spaces, as well as a broader understanding of the limitations of alternative forms of access when they are not prioritized from the outset. In implementing rigorous mutual exchange and by leveraging the newly embodied knowledge resulting from the pandemic, there is hope that a message is finally being received. If these experiences can linger in public and institutional consciousness and are acted on as diligently as the pandemic response of many galleries, multi-dimensional accessibility in art spaces will be taken off of checklists and instead implemented through thoughtful creative strategy.