Whose Eye Level?

I have been an artist and arts administrator for over thirty years. Now that I'm on the other side of what painter Chuck Close calls "temporarily abled," I find my own profession not very accommodating. Unexpectedly,five years ago I was partially paralyzed from complications of surgery.

Museums seem to be the most problematic. My gallery visits are based on stamina, not driven by content. Are comfortable benches so contrary to the enjoyment of art? Group tours leave me behind: I often catch up just as the docent is leading the group on to the next room.

I have been an artist and arts administrator for over thirty years. Now that I'm on the other side of what painter Chuck Close calls "temporarily abled," I find my own profession not very accommodating. Unexpectedly, five years ago I was partially paralyzed from complications of surgery.

Museums seem to be the most problematic. My gallery visits are based on stamina, not driven by content. Are comfortable benches so contrary to the enjoyment of art? Group tours leave me behind: I often catch up just as the docent is leading the group on to the next room.

Surprisingly, I have found artists to be most recalcitrant in accepting different realities. I remember an unpleasant phone discussion with a photographer who was going to be included in a group exhibition. She insisted that her works were best seen at her eye level. I reminded her of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, and she retorted "but those people don't come anyway." Last year another artist, a well known ceramicist, and his gallery dealer threatened to withdraw his pieces from a show if we did not place them at his eye level.

As for interpretative aids, signed performance and assisted-listening devices are commonplace in theaters, yet it is still a radical notion to have audio description available for other disciplines. Visual artists, choreographers, and composers are staunchly opposed to this kind of contextualization, fearing it takes something away from their work.

Two seasons back, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts put together an audio-descriptive tour for our Ecotopias exhibition which included photographs of Chernobyl by Kenji Yanobe, paintings by Alexis Rockman, conceptual installations by Mark Dion and Natalie Jeremijenko, as well as a selection of vintage bicycles. At first, an audio-described tape seemed quite impossible to do, until one of our interns let me know that he was interested and had some experience. So, with a little consultation, we put together a pretty good first attempt. Many of our audiences, not only those visually impaired, appreciated the opportunity to have the art more fully described. Contemporary aesthetics can be bewildering; accessible information only heightens the experience for everyone.

Facilities can also be a daunting barrier. In many alternative theater, music, and dance venues, I dread walking up and down rickety stairs. Once inside, I am angry at steeply raked seating with no railings and at the location of the only available handicap seating — way off in the back or on the side in the “Jim Crow” sections.

In 1998, Yerba Buena put together an Accessibility Task Force made up of community advisors along with Center staff — curatorial, facilities, and administrative. The committee did an audit of the organization and came up with recommendations for facility upgrades and program expansion. Although our buildings opened in 1993 (long after the ADA legislation became law), we found drinking fountains, doorways, bathrooms, telephones, box office windows, elevator lighting, signage, disability seating, and dressing rooms to be inadequate.

Programmatically, the task force suggested that we change the way exhibitions are installed, incorporate consistent marketing messages, include more artists with disabilities in programs and planning, and regularly schedule pertinent educational activities.

As a result of this committee's work, we developed a plan to continue improving facilities. Programs and marketing are more integrated. Enhancements to our Web site are underway that will offer descriptive alternatives to visual images and sound. A brochure in Braille is available at the lobby desk and box office. We now host quarterly tours and workshops for the deaf community. Our preparators hang the majority of art work fifty-six inches from the floor, rather than the museum standard of fifty-eight inches. Wall labels are now 3 x 5 inches and are printed in 20 point high-contrast type, and folios of larger-font labels are posted in each gallery.

In our best efforts, we have made many mistakes, but we have also had some stressful but wonderful moments of shared learning. For the past two years, we co-sponsored the annual benefit for the World Institute on Disabilities and the Corporation on Disabilities and Telecommunications. Last year, in the middle of the program, the fire alarms went off. Our house staff was insufficiently prepared to evacuate large numbers of patrons with mobility impairments. Luckily, it was a false alarm and everyone was good spirited about the incident. This season's benefit went a lot more smoothly; we certainly had clarified our internal procedures. However, last year's benefit was successful and more people wanted to attend. That meant making further adaptations for wheelchairs in a theater that was ill-equipped to handle even a token few.

Ongoing staff training is important. Sensitivity and awareness is integrated into the curriculum of full staff meetings. Our tour coordinator recently attended a meeting at the Exploratorium in San Francisco on best practices. Topics covered included appropriate language, the importance of involving people with disabilities in programs and as advisors, effective communications tools, accessibility checklists for exhibitions, and a resource list developed by the Smithsonian.

From another perspective, a rather formidable obstacle for artists who are disabled is access to classes, workshops, and other professional training opportunities. Judy Smith who directs AXIS Dance Company, a mixed-mobility ensemble based in Oakland, speaks eloquently about how few opportunities her dancers have to learn and grow. “It is practically impossible to get dance training in the community — most studios are not accessible and teachers are at a loss as to how their material can translate to and for a dancer with a disability. However, once they begin to work with us, they gain confidence as they become familiar with an expanded array of possibilities and often find a deeper understanding of their own material.”

Proactively redressing this isolation, Smith set up a series of workshops and commissioned new dances from such major choreographers as Joe Goode, Bill T. Jones, Stephen Petronio, and Joanna Haigood. Yerba Buena hosted such a residency with performance artist/dancer Bill Shannon rehearsing with AXIS. Initially, each visiting choreographer told me they were nervous, not knowing how they would work with such a diverse array of bodies and abilities. Afterward, all agreed that the experience of collaborating with this company enriched their own repertory of movement possibilities.

As a way to further expand professional opportunities, Yerba Buena recently joined a “Professional Enrichment Program” consortium with a number of theater and disability advocacy organizations. The focus will be to increase participation and professional development of theater artists from underrepresented groups, especially those with disabilities.

Finally, it is important to recognize how complex and long-term our commitment must be if we are to create truly inclusive organizations. Change is difficult, but, if we are serious, the programming, decision making, and governance of our organizations must include the voices of those we seek to include. One-time only programs will not suffice and will not work. Change can be incremental, but it must be substantial. Trust must be earned and well deserved before we can expect true relationships to develop.

Community partners are essential in all of this work. Yerba Buena has co-presented a performance series of deaf poets and storytellers with D.E.A.F. Media for years. Recently we were awarded a multi-year grant from the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds for deepening, expanding, and diversifying our audiences. Crucial to the success of this initiative will be the work we continue to do with D.E.A.F. Media — building on what we have done together in the past and are planning for the future.

I look forward to that future and invite all “temporarily abled” to come along for a glorious ride.

John R. Killacky is executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. His remarks were made during a panel discussion “Community Models for Inclusion,” as part of Western States Arts Federation's conference, From Insight to Innovation: Art and Accessibility in the West.