Through my research over the course of this semester, all roads led back to the Art Institute. The critiques I held upon my departure from the institution found some solutions, as well as the beginnings of a potential shift within the museum structure. While the building is ADA compliant, there’s a question of how inclusive the programming and exhibition designs are with regard to disability. This past year there have been some small victories stemming from initiatives put in place by my former colleagues in Museum Education. In order to put change in place, there needs to be action steps and often a source of funding for implementing change. For example, one of the museum educators approached the Office of Development about applying for a grant within the healthcare industry to potentially fund a series of disability-focused educational programming. Development steered him toward Cigna, the healthcare provider for Art Institute employees, and a grant proposal was created and later accepted.
Figure 6: Noel King leading an ASL Tour at the Art Institute
With the funds from this grant, the Art Institute was able to implement ASL tours, which were initiated by Noel King, a deaf graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. King’s background is in art therapy, but she has extensive training in giving ASL museum tours from her time working at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and a desire to put something similar in place at the Art Institute. Initially created as a bit of an experiment, these programs soon gained momentum, partially due to the use of social media, but in large part due to the community want for a program like this (Figure 6). I had the pleasure of attending one of the ASL tours and enjoyed the learning process, the enriching dialogue, and the fact that some 65 people joined the tour – a large number for a touring group regardless of the language it was conducted in.
What had me the most excited was that this was the only tour offered on Thursday evening, the night the museum is free to the public. My takeaway from this observation is that with the ASL tour being the only tour that evening, meant that it was no different from the general guided tours, but rather a regular tour communicated in a different language. Though the museum is by no means done with the work toward making a wholly inclusive space, by making the ASL tour the only tour for the evening, the question of difference and the label of “other” was removed for me – disability was beautifully and seamlessly woven into the regular programming of the institution.
Other programs in the works included the use of captioning in a Member lecture on Degas this summer, something the museum has yet to try. And a longer term goal on the wish list of the educators is to create a “style guide” for how to speak to audiences with disability, how to speak about audiences with disability, and how to incorporate disability in the general exhibition programming – not only in terms of content but also in exhibition design, lighting, and labeling methods. Potentially modeled after a preexisting guide created by the Steppenwolf Theatre, this manual would ideally shift the attitudes of museum workers across the spectrum of departments, and force a turn in the operations of the museum to create a more fully inclusive and welcome space. Though it is interesting that the Art Institute did not participate in the ADA 25 Chicago initiative, it is clear that by creating smaller-scale internal changes one department at a time, a shift will begin to occur. Judging by the high attendance of individuals with and without hearing impairment on the ASL tour I attended, the audience exists and is interested. There is an appetite for this kind of a museum, and if we build it (ADA compliant), they will come.
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Author Unknown. “Discoveries: Workshops for Visitors with Developmental and Learning Disabilities and Those on the Autism Spectrum.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Spring-Summer 2015. PDF.
Author Unknown. “For Visitors Who Are Blind or Partially Sighted.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Date Unknown. Web. 27 April 2015.
Author Unknown. “For Visitors with Hearing Loss.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Date Unknown. Web. 27 April 2015.
Author Unknown. “Road Scholars.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Date Unknown. Web. 25 April 2015.
Author Unknown. “The ADA and City Governments: Common Problems.” U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. October 10, 2008. Web. 19 April 2015.
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Author Unknown. “Programs for Visitors with Disabilities.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Date Unknown. Web. 27 April 2015.
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 This section reflects a conversation another MUSE Student and I had with two museum educators at the Art Institute on April 30, 2015. We candidly spoke about the challenges of changing the institutional outlook on disability, some of the programs that are working, the issue of attaining funding for programs like the ones they are exploring, and much of the work that needs to be done to make the Art Institute a more accessible space.