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Moving the DisArt Conversation Forward

Posted August 21, 2015 in GalleryPublic

The inaugural DisArt Festival may have wound down, but the conversations it started about disability, identity, accessibility, and inclusion are still going strong.

Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) stepped up to play a key role in the development and execution of the festival as a part of the college’s ongoing Arts and Access initiative, which began in early 2015 in partnership with Ferris State University. As KCAD and Ferris State began to think more broadly about issues of accessibility, DisArt proved invaluable in helping both institutions gain a deeper understanding of the disabled experience and its relation to policy, public programming, and the built environment.

During DisArt, The Fed Galleries @ KCAD also co-hosted the “Art of the Lived Experiment” exhibition along with the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) and Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA). Coordinated by UICA, this groundbreaking exhibition includedsome of the leading contemporary disability artists from around the world, and helped expand the conversations sparked by DisArt and the Arts and Access initiative to a larger public audience.

Following the close of “Art of the Lived Experiment,” DisArt organizers and key collaborators held a public discussion panel at UICA to assess the community impact of DisArt while also exploring ways to keep momentum going.

Panelists included Michele Bosak, curator of exhibitions at KCAD; Chris Smit, director of DisArt; Marylu Dykstra, a program director at Disability Advocates of Kent County who helped organize DisArt and participated as an artist; Chris Zull, traffic safety manager for the City of Grand Rapids; Elizabeth Van Arragon, a professor of Art History at Calvin College who helped organize DisArt; and Katie Jones, guest services coordinator at GRAM.

DisArt discussion panelHeld on the UICA terrace, the DisArt discussion panel brought event organizers and the public together

Reflecting on DisArt’s multifaceted programming, Smit said, “We wanted to create what marketers call sticky events, where what people hear and feel and engage with sticks with them and they feel compelled to talk about it. We succeeded in that. The art we brought in was so dynamic and so inviting for questions.”

From visual art to film to interactive events, DisArt audiences were exposed to both works by disability artists and ideas about disability that most had never encountered before. Leaving people with more questions than answers about the disabled experience, Smit said, was something organizers were more than comfortable with doing.

“That was happening everywhere at DisArt. Hopefully, those moments stuck so that conversations were taken to the coffee table, to church, to work, and then went further. That’s what art does, both for DisArt and for other things – art is there to do some very important cultural work.”

Art of the Lived Experiment exhibition inside The Fed Galleries @ KCADAudiences experience the Art of the Lived Experiment exhibition inside The Fed Galleries @ KCAD

The panelists pointed out that while DisArt was a clear success in terms of meeting attendance and fundraising goals, measures of how successful that cultural work will ultimately be are far more fluid, and will have to play out over time. But for now, they can confidently say that DisArt achieved a very high level of meaningful engagement.

“One of our measures of success was hearing people say ‘I get it. We want to look at disability in a different way; we need to be looking at it from a cross-disability perspective,’” said Dykstra.

Van Arragon recalled being especially struck by audience reactions to some of the live performance art that took place. “Petra Cuppers did a community art performance in Calvin’s 106 Gallery where nearly everyone in attendance participated; she arranged us, she wove us all together into a human tapestry and then we held our position, close enough to hear each other’s breath and feel each others pulses,” she said. “It created a fascinating parallel between performance art and the condition of disability, where one mediates oneself in a public space according to one’s body.”

For Dykstra and other artists who shared their work, DisArt was an empowering new platform of expression. “I was able to look at my shadow and my art and say it’s worth something and others agree,” she said. “When you deal with bipolar like I do, there are a lot of anxieties and insecurities that creep in and say ‘I have no value or worth,’ but there it was hanging on the wall, and it was OK to be disabled.”

Beyond rethinking contemporary notions of disability, DisArt also helped strengthen dialogues around the importance of inclusion and access in public spaces. For The Fed Galleries @ KCAD and GRAM, hosting “Art of the Lived Experiment” was a revelatory experience.

KCAD Curator of Exhibitions Michele BosakMichele Bosak, curator of exhibitions at KCAD, added her perspective to the DisArt discussion panel

“DisArt helped us to think about space as sensory experience,” said Bosak. “We found out that there were a lot of senses we weren’t considering. Some people may have an aversion to smells, so gallery attendants shouldn’t be wearing heavy perfume or cologne. If an autistic child comes in and has an issue where he/she needs to find a quiet space quickly, we need to be able to provide that. We could also be doing more to create accessible vantage points, hanging works at a variety of heights instead of one standard height.”

Jones added, “I didn’t realize just how absent disabled people were at GRAM until DisArt came and suddenly they weren’t absent. We need to figure out what we can do to bring those people back on a consistent basis, and we have to come at it from a lot of different angles.”

DisArt Fashion ShowThe DisArt Fashion Show, one of the festival's most impactful events, showed how form and function could be balanced to bring accessibility to the forefront of fashon design

DisArt also afforded the City of Grand Rapids, which declared 2015 the Year of Arts and Access, opportunities to better understand how to incorporate accessibility to its ongoing planning and developments efforts. Prior to the festival’s launch, the city installed an audible pedestrian signal at Fulton and Division that allows visually impaired individuals to safely cross the intersection.

“With every construction project, the city takes access into consideration,” said Zull. We’re constantly talking about mobility and multiple modes of transportation. … We have to shed the biases of the past and move forward in a way that benefits all of us.”

Dykstra added, “The amazing partnership with the City of Grand Rapids gives me goose bumps; they are truly partners in our efforts to change the face of how our city looks and acts.”

As a biennial event, the DisArt Festival will not happen again until 2017. However, organizers have already begun the process of transforming DisArt into a fully-fledged nonprofit organization that can deliver year-round programming and keep these vital conversations going between festivals.

“The next step is for Grand Rapids to think about disability as a cultural trait,” said Smit. “Culture is a way for disabled people to grab hold of an identity that has never been in their control because in the past, disability has always been defined by medical institutions. Now, in the last 20 years, the disabled culture movement has grasped it’s own identity. Disability is an identity that should be respected, nourished, and collaborated with. I think those steps are being taken. We can’t go back to a moment where disabled people are on the outskirts.”


Stay up-to-date on the latest DisArt happenings at disartfestival.org.