Show and Tell: Making Art Accessible
Painting. Sinuous lines of sapphire and pale blue curl in whirlpools and waves around a glowing crescent moon and stars. Closest to us, a narrow, forest-green cypress tree, nearly black, cuts into the sky like a spire near the left edge of the canvas. In the bottom quarter of the composition, houses and a church nestle into a valley before royal-blue hills roll up toward the sky. The buildings, trees, and mountains are outlined in cobalt blue. The horns of the crescent moon nearly touch in the upper right corner. Eleven stars pulse faintly or intensely across clouds of the bright blue sky, amid clouds that crash like waves on a shore.
What did you imagine as you read that description? What feelings did it evoke? Did it sound familiar? Were you able to guess what painting it describes?
If you guessed Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, you get a gold star! Knowing that, did the description match or differ from your previous experiences of the painting?
The creation and experience of art is one of the defining experiences of being human. For the creator, it provides a way to express thoughts, emotions, uniqueness, and creativity. For the audience, it can evoke intense emotion and passion, carving a space for beauty, contemplation, and stillness in the midst of modern lives that are driven by busyness, productivity, and the mundane.
Despite being so essential to the human experience, a lot of, if not most, art is inaccessible to millions of Disabled folks around the world. This inaccessibility manifests in many ways, from physical access to simply not regarding Disabled artists as legitimate. And it means that large swaths of humanity are unable to partake in one way or another in this deeply rooted form of expression.
But why? It’s 2024, the technology age. Shouldn’t we have solved this by now? Let’s look at some of the common barriers to making art accessible, as well as dream together about how to make the present—not the future, but right here and now—more inclusive.
Why Inclusion Needs to Happen Yesterday
“Art really saved my life,” replied Blind artist John Bramblitt when we asked him what it means to him to have art that’s accessible. As someone who gradually lost his eyesight, he struggled with depression and anger at what he was going through. He felt he “could draw before he could walk,” so losing the ability to see a composition was terrifying and frustrating.
Similarly, Clarke Reynolds, another Blind artist, began losing sight in one eye when he was only 6 years old, and eventually lost it in his other eye as an adult. But he always knew he wanted to be an artist and feels that art “changed and saved” his life.
Both artists understood early on that art is about more than aesthetics or creating something beautiful, though that is part of it. Clarke feels that “art takes you outside of reality,” evoking an emotional response and eliciting conversation. Likewise, John knew that art gave him “a way of seeing and understanding the world” and even a way to work through his feelings when it was hard to do so. He even said that to not have access to art “would be like a sighted person putting a blindfold on for the entire day.”
For these two artists, both creating and experiencing art clearly serves a larger purpose than simply filling their time. We suspect that they are not alone, that artists of all backgrounds and throughout all periods of history would echo similar sentiments. “Such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce,” wrote legendary composer Ludwig Van Beethoven regarding his increasing deafness in an unsent letter to his brothers.
Yet both Clarke and John mentioned that the idea of being a “Blind artist” is so groundbreaking to many, it doesn’t compute. No matter how hard he works and what barriers he pushes, Clarke feels that the industry still stigmatizes people with disabilities, regarding his work as a hobby, not a profession. Ultimately, access to art also includes giving Disabled artists the same opportunities and platforms to share their work with others.
Their stories make it painfully clear how paramount access to art is. It’s not just about the art; it’s about the expression, the ability to process and understand the world in a new way, the experience of reality from a different perspective, and the act of sharing that perspective with the world. And for folks who are disabled, it may be that much more important.
Bringing Show and Tell Back
With that in mind, the state of art accessibility becomes almost unconscionable. Despite being more than two decades into the 21st century, most museums and galleries still create displays with only non-Disabled patrons in mind. And while the last few years have shown an increased interest in accessibility thanks to the pandemic, we still have a long way to go. So what gets in the way?
First and foremost, the biggest roadblock to making art accessible is how we think of it. For example, if we consider painting to be a “visual” art, we tend to think it can only be experienced through sight. Similarly, if we think of music as something that can only be heard, then we miss the full-body experience of music, like the vibrations that we feel, the sight of the musicians as they play, the feeling of playing an instrument ourselves, and even the math behind the music. (Beethoven himself serves as an example of this, as he wrote some of his most admired compositions after losing his hearing.)
In order to make art accessible to everyone, we have to rethink how we perceive and experience art, and use our creativity to find new ways of conveying it to others.
This is actually not something that should be foreign to us. As Clarke astutely pointed out to us, most of us in the US and UK had to do “show and tell” in school, meaning we had to bring something to school, get up in front of the class, and tell them all about it. Rather than letting the item or art speak for itself, we described it while showing it, which helped create a more robust understanding of it than if we had simply displayed it on a table or wall.
Alt Text: Oxymoron by Clarke Reynolds. Braille words are spelled out with flat disks against a gridded, felt-green board. Each letter is a different color ranging from baby blue and cream to claret red and brown. The Braille text reads, “Oxymoron figure of speech in which opposite words are combined for effect blind visual artist.”
We need to bring the practice of show and tell back, considering not just how a piece looks or sounds, but also how to describe it, how it feels, what emotions it might evoke, and what conversations it might spark. In other words, art needs to be considered from every perspective by not only the artists, but also the programmers, curators, educators, exhibition designers, visitor services, security officers, food service workers, front-facing staff, and anyone who might be involved in one way or another with displaying the work. From there, it’s simply a matter of getting creative.
Getting Intentionally Creative
If we can change how we think about art, the next barrier is almost always limited resources. There may not be funds or time or even just humanpower to carry out a vision. But that’s why we must think outside the box and apply our creativity not just to the creation of art, but to the methods of access to it.
For example, Clarke designs all of his pieces using Braille and encourages audiences to touch every single piece. This allows people to experience his work through other senses, as well as sparks conversation about the message in the Braille. But even for those whose work isn’t as tactile, like photography, he suggests something as simple as taking a few minutes to record a description of each piece, then having QR codes that link to the descriptions at each piece.
Alt Text: Haptics by Clarke Reynolds. Braille letters made with flat disks blend in or stand out intensely against a violet-purple, gridded background. For instance, army-green and gray dots recede, while ivory white, daffodil yellow, and lime green seem to hover over the surface. The Braille text reads, “Haptics. Is that subsystem of non language communication which shows meaning through touching.”
Lorena Bradford, a Scribely writer who works at the National Gallery of Art and helped write their image description guidelines (and who wrote the Van Gogh description at the beginning of this article), says that intentionality is key. Because there are so many different contexts in which a display or work may be encountered, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, we “need to be intentional about what we include and exclude and why.”
Unfortunately, the next barrier is often the fact that this proverbial wheel has not yet been fully invented. There are no agreed-upon standards or methods or guidelines in place to steer us as we implement accessibility, which inevitably means starting from scratch—not an easy task. And for those who do choose to do so, we’re now seeing lots of discrepancy in methods, which can be confusing and jarring for audiences.
But this may be inevitable, according to Lorena: “Each museum, gallery, or collection is different. We’d all like to streamline our efforts to avoid redundancy and ensure accessibility, especially of new content, but the processes that go into that will depend on the institution, the nature of their collections, and their goals.” Therefore, she suggests, “every institution or organization needs to decide what their best practice is. Different collections also lend themselves to different types of access. A museum collection of mostly paintings is going to have fewer opportunities for tactile experiences of the original pieces, whereas a history museum or historic house may be more flexible in that area.”
Alt Text (Left Image): Oxymoron by Clarke Reynolds. Braille words are spelled out with flat disks against a gridded, felt-green board. Each letter is a different color ranging from baby blue and cream to claret red and brown. The Braille text reads, “Oxymoron figure of speech in which opposite words are combined for effect blind visual artist.”
Alt Text (Right Image): Haptics by Clarke Reynolds. Braille letters made with flat disks blend in or stand out intensely against a violet-purple, gridded background. For instance, army-green and gray dots recede, while ivory white, daffodil yellow, and lime green seem to hover over the surface. The Braille text reads, “Haptics. Is that subsystem of non language communication which shows meaning through touching.”
So what can we conclude from all of this? Yes, there is a lot of variation and vagueness, but we still have a lot to work with. Here’s a checklist to get you started:
1. Is the location physically accessible?
2. Have we considered multiple types of disabilities?
- Have we consulted with these communities to learn about their specific needs and desires?
3. Have we provided more than one way to access the piece? Some options:
- Readable in multiple languages, including Braille
4. Have we offered tours for different types of disabilities?
5. Is our whole staff trained in accessibility?
6. Is someone on staff trained in description?
The Art of Description
Perhaps one of the most important factors of art accessibility is description. Long before our modern age, Disabled people have relied on others to describe pieces as a way of experiencing it. And though we have new technologies that can turn lines into sounds or 3D print tactile replicas, the description is still just as important as ever. It is often the simplest and quickest way to give someone access to a piece.
But it’s easier said than done. We all know a great description when we hear or read one, and a great description can unlock a piece in ways that a mediocre or even good description can’t. Learning to describe well is an art in and of itself and is well worth investing in. If the purpose of art is to transport and transform us, then its description should reflect that.
How? Well, that remains to be decided as there is no consensus. We asked both John and Clarke what they feel makes a good description, and they couldn’t have been more opposite. “Describe the size of the art piece first,” John said, saying that it helps you to frame the piece right away. But Clarke? “I do not want to know the dimensions of the artwork. That’s a big no no.” Instead, he prefers “an emotional response that helps [him] picture what it could be” and to think of what sells the piece in the most limited number of words. His tip for doing this was to “speak Yoda.”
So if you just need one place to start, start with learning to describe, hiring a staff member who specializes in description, or working with an expert consultant like Scribely. Check out this case study showing the difference expert-written descriptions can make.
Because Scribely believes so strongly in this, we’re expanding our image description services to support a higher volume of work with cultural organizations like Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt, The Whitney Museum, The Huntington, and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. We’re also partnering with organizations like University of California Scout and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to provide image description training and consulting services for internal museum staff.
Unlock Art with Accessibility
Just as art can unlock the world, accessibility can unlock art for everyone. John explains what it feels like to experience an inclusive museum or gallery: “It’s such a wonderful experience when you go into a place that is inclusive and they’ve taken the pains to make sure it is accessible to everyone. People just light up.” And when we make creating art accessible, it’s even better: “Their world is opened up because they can start interacting with the world differently. Their entire worldview has changed.” Though we still have a lot of details to hammer out, we must push through the difficulties and make accessibility part of the art experience from the beginning. Too much is at stake not to.
We hope you’ve enjoyed the art in this article. All works, besides Van Gogh’s Starry Night, are works of John Bramblitt and Clarke Reynolds. Please support their work by following them!