Thursday, September 26, 2019

Arts and Accessibility: Robert Colescott at CAC

Wow, so much has happened this summer. Have I got some updates for you!
First I've gotta tell you what I've been up to at work.
You know I’ve always loved both art and writing (hence this blog), but I’ve recently combined the two in a way I truly never expected.
In August 2017, a few months after graduation, I stumbled into what is now my current job at an agency contracted by the Library of Congress and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). The place I work is a regional braille and audio-book distribution center, supporting 72 NLS branch libraries throughout the eastern US (and working with our counterpart to the west). We help the NLS branches serve thousands of patrons who are blind, visually impaired, or have other challenges reading traditional books. 
My particular job within this grand scheme is pretty unspectacular, entry-level work. I was lured by good pay, a quiet, introvert-friendly environment, and access (at work) to the entire NLS audio library... but I discovered so much more: a close-knit group of coworkers, a kind boss who supports and advocates for each of us, and work that makes me feel fulfilled.
It feels really good to be part of a program that delivers literature straight to people's hands!
More Than Meets the Eye is a brilliant book about
blindness and art by Georgina Kleege, English
lecturer at UC Berkely and life-long lover of the
arts, unhindered by her visual impairment.
Even with all of that, I was floored when an opportunity came up at work that would perfectly combine my passions: writing descriptions of visual art. 
Much of the arts world (except the obvious, music) is not accessible for those without sight. Touching the artwork is a big no-no in museums! 
Even the performing arts like theatre are heavily dependent on the visual—actions, sets, even playbills are all vision-oriented. 
However, blind and visually impaired (BVI) individuals are by no means uninterested in the arts! A large portion of the BVI population loses their sight later in life, and the thought of losing access to some of the arts can be a painful part of adjusting to a new lifestyle with limited or no vision.
However, arts institutions are trying to help the situation.
Some museums have regularly scheduled touch tours, others offer on-demand audio tours. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has options for visitors who are blind, deaf, autistic, or even have dementia! Unfortunately, many places don't have the necessary resources to support so many programs. Lack of funds, lack of staff, and lack of awareness are major hurdles for accessibility. 
The parent organization of my job, Clovernook Center for the Blind, started the Arts and Accessibility Initiative in 2016. The Arts Initiative works to help museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions become accessible for BVI patrons.
The Arts Initiative is comprised of blind and sighted braille transcribers and proofreaders, an audio engineer and a narrator, a tactile graphics producer, and writers... that's where I fit in! We come alongside institutions and help them determine ways to better serve BVI patrons, consulting with BVI individuals and focus groups to ensure that our strategies and end-products are truly beneficial. 
I and my work-friend LT got involved earlier this year because the Arts Initiative was looking for writers. With our English degrees and love of writing and the arts, we were excited to join.
The Arts Initiative made this summer a whirlwind of meetings and projects, on top of my regular workload. We spent the early part of the summer preparing for several members of the Initiative to give a presentation at the Kennedy Center Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD), an annual conference with the goal of creating accessible cultural arts programs around the world. 
Earlier this year we received a $25,000 grant to provide free accessible materials to ten institutions. We reached out to a variety of cultural institutions, both local and around the country.
Since LEAD is over, it's time to get working on the grant projects. First up: the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) here in Cincinnati!
Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati.
Photo courtesy of The Cincinnati Region
We worked closely with Shawnee Turner, Associate Educator of School and Docent Programs at CAC, to find out how we could best serve the museum's BVI visitors.
Together we made arrangements for the Arts Initiative to provide accessible materials for their 2019-2020 season-opening exhibition, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott. We would write and record audio descriptions of ten paintings, record all of the wall-text provided by the curators, and produce all of that text in accompanying braille booklets.
This was a daunting project for LT and me. It was our first attempt at this sort of description, the stakes were high, and the art was technically and thematically challenging. But we did it!
The first thing LT and I did was sit down with several sighted and visually impaired people to look at the first painting, a huge piece titled "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware." Together we wrote down every single thing we could see. Shape, size, texture, composition, color. We wrote it all down and then transformed and arranged these notes into careful, logical descriptions.

George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook, Robert Colescott, 1975.
Acrylic on canvas. After George Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Lueuze, 1851. (Private
collection, Saint Louis, © 2017 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Jean Paul Torno)

One challenge I enjoyed was thinking about the logical order in which to arrange information. I had to think about the the prominent features of the painting, plus the overall composition and the pattern in which the eye moves around the canvas, and then write it all in a natural, easy-to-follow manner.  

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I wanted to make sure each word was in the right place. If I misplaced a single word, it would throw off all 999 other proverbial words.

That said, once I got over the prestige of the project and finally started writing, this was a fairly easy project. 

My favorite art teacher’s mantra was “draw what you see, not what you think you see.” It means not to let your expectations or ideas get in the way of what’s actually in front of your eyes. Not to let your mental image of a house obscure the actual house you’re drawing. 
Eat Dem Taters, Robert Colescott, 1975, on display at
CAC. After The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh, 1885. 

This “draw what you see” mantra held true for writing these descriptions. Write what you see, not what you think you see. Write what you see, not what you expect. 

Once the descriptions were complete, our brilliant audio duo, Joey and Chris, took over. They recorded 40 pages of material, both the descriptive text and the CAC wall text.  
Last Friday, I and my artist-friend, Brynnae, went to the CAC Colescott opening. It was a great event! 
I loved getting to see this artwork I’d so carefully described, all hanging together on the broad white walls, alongside 75 other paintings and drawings by Robert Colescott. I loved getting to learn a little bit about the art scene in New York in the 80s, when Colescott’s career was at its peak. I enjoyed getting to be a part of the VIP crowd, as a contributor to the exhibition. Most of all, I really loved getting to see some of my blind coworkers enjoying the art through the efforts of LT, Chris, Joey, and myself.
Next time, I'll share a bit more about the life and art of Robert Colescott... See ya later!


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