Contributed by: Helyn Marshall, Wexner Center for the Arts
What was the most beautiful thing you’ve ever experienced? Whether seen, heard, felt, or some combination of sensory understanding? Even if it was fleeting. Even if it was small. Even if you were alone when it happened.
Was it art?
There are many questions and ideas that circle like vultures over the concept of art, such as “Do artists make art because they want to, or because they have to?” and “Is it still art if no one else ever appreciates it?”
Hi. My name is Helyn Marshall, and I’m currently working in my second year as the first Accessibility Manager at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Before this job, I was a house manager, helping visitors of the Wex get into and out of events. I’ve been at the Wex for about 16 years, and in that time I’ve experienced a lot of things and asked a lot of questions. Some of the questions have been about the art—contemporary visual art, experimental performing arts, multidisciplinary arts—and yes, I have asked “Is this art?” more than once! Some of the questions have been about how to get people interested in or comfortable with the arts. Still more have been about how to make the arts more accessible.
Many questions over the past year-and-a-half have been about how to make what we offer through the Wex digitally accessible, since that was our only option. Funny how things start to work (or break and get fixed) when they’re your only option! We made a move to new, online platforms for sharing the art of our time, immediately moving film/video programs online during the same time as The Ohio State University was rolling out a new digital accessibility policy for all its units. The Wex is part of Ohio State, so we very quickly realized all the films and videos we showed online needed to be captioned. Our Film/Video programmers rapidly adapted to that need by working individually and with vendors to provide captions. Our Exhibitions Department sought an academic advisory council which included the Director of Ohio State’s Disability Studies Program to bring an incredible exhibition called Climate Changing: on Artists, Institutions and the Social Environment, which has been extended through August 15, 2021. Supportive programming is woven into the run of this exhibition, including a cross-disability artist talk that included captioning, ASL interpretation, and Audio Description; an electronic gallery guide available on the exhibition’s webpage along with a large print version of the opening essay of the gallery guide; and a project where graduate students in a seminar class about access created Audio Descriptions for selected works in the exhibit.
This gorgeous and engaging exhibit will have a closing panel discussion online on August 5, 2021 called Ways Forward: New Institutional Paradigms and Practices, focused on access and equity as intersectional issues in arts institutions and how this last year-and-a-half has helped us change for the better on an international scale. We’re continuing our partnership with Ohio State’s Disability Studies Program to create a new internship program to teach students real-life access skills and help the Wex support digital media access by providing alt-text, transcript, and caption creation. Our Performing Arts Department worked with local musicians and national performers to share intimate nights of online escape, which were also captioned. More adaptations followed with members of our Learning & Public Practice (LPP) Department working with local artists to produce “how to” videos to bring making art into people’s homes instead of bringing people into the Wex for workshops as had happened every year before. I partnered with our LPP Department and Functional Training Services, a private, person-centered vocational rehabilitation agency which partners with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, to connect with their local support group for blind and visually impaired individuals for which we’d been brainstorming how to bring in for an audio description tour of the exhibit that was showing right as the pandemic hit… Well, guess what? Phones still work! We had a lovely call and connected over the ideas, described images, and sounds in some of the art. Just because the entire world was on lockdown didn’t mean that there wasn’t freedom for art! And as we, as a nation, entered what has become a recognized dual public health crisis of COVID and racism, the Wex’s outreach efforts with local artists became more personalized and began branching into more immediately supportive programs for individuals and communities who are doubly impacted.
One project, Cameron Granger’s Everybody’s got a little light, under the sun, began as an in-person short film program and community food initiative, was postponed due to the pandemic restrictions and then had a metamorphosis to become both an e-zine and an act of community care and service with Willowbeez Soul Veg, a local grassroots, vegetarian and vegan food business. Willobeez worked with Cameron to share a simple recipe for a healthy dinner via his e-zine, and the Wex assisted in distributing the ‘zine and all of the needed ingredients (plus a few staple foods) to around 200 participants at two Columbus locations, during the heart of winter. Cameron also worked with the Willowbeez brothers Carnell and Malik on a cooking video to support the instructional aspect of the project. In a lot of ways, it became less of getting people to come to us in our building and more about meeting folks where they were.
And that includes listening.
Asking questions and listening.
And then doing what is asked for; what is needed.
What I seek to bring to the center in this role of Accessibility Manager as we move to offer greater access to all patrons for all programs, can be broken down into four actions: being available, listening, asking questions, and doing what is needed. I’m interested in how accessibility can be centered in the arts by shifting policies and adapting practices to open up experiences to all individuals of all abilities, all the time, for maximum independence and enjoyment of the arts on each individual’s terms. Sometimes it’s something simple like being able to sit for part of a performance instead of needing to stand because of an inflexible environment. Sometimes it’s about having access to an interpreter for ASL or Audio Description or support for another communication-based disability. Sometimes access is more personalized, with layers of adaptations needed for an individual to have the same opportunity to fully engage with the content of an event.
There are many windows through which to view the universality of human life depicted in the arts, whether in-person or online. I hope you can look at the Wex and see yourself here, even when “here” is where you live. And I hope you have a beautiful view.