During lockdown, and the months that have followed, the art scene has strangely felt like an accessible utopia. Life began to resemble my first lockdown in 2018, when I developed a chronic fatigue that kept me on my sofa for six months — this time, however, I was not left behind; the rest of the nation was trapped inside too. Organisations suddenly began to care about the people that weren’t standing in their buildings, that weren’t directly in front of them increasing footfall figures. Organisations now had no choice but to consider outreach and access; ways of working that enable people in a range of different situations to engage with their programming. It has confirmed what we Disabled People knew all along — accessibility within the arts is possible, if the inclination is there. We have been being ignored, we have been let down, and now that a new precedent has been set, this must be recognised.
The arts sector is exclusionary and inaccessible. Disabled People make up 2.3% of the UK visual arts workforce, compared to 21% of the population, and in order for the arts sector to reflect the population they work for, there should be ten times the number of disabled workers. The social model of disability argues that people are disabled by a society that doesn’t meet their needs, rather than an individual’s impairments and differences. There are many barriers that stop Disabled People from being able to easily engage with and/or work within contemporary art — busy private views, inaccessible gallery spaces, inflexible and demanding working conditions, to name a few. Now, suddenly, Non-Disabled People are being forced to reinvent private views, create non-physical gallery spaces, and adapt to new ways of working. Barriers to viewing art are being removed, and by learning from the more accessible working structures that have emerged during the pandemic — namely working from home becoming widespread — we could feasibly see a rise in the proportion of Disabled People within the arts workforce. If harnessed, these adjustments and advances could lead to a newly accessible art world.
In terms of exhibitions and events, established institutions are better equipped to remove the barriers faced by Disabled People due to larger budgets, but anti-ableist structures need to be present in grassroots and emerging art scenes. Large organisations nonetheless systematically ignore the needs of marginalised people, instead focussing on profit and footfall, and we cannot wait for them to get on board and lead the way. The artist-led, where most artists find their footing, is positioned as a radical scene of inclusivity, with values of community and collaboration bringing people together to share a space and support each other. But artist-led organisations often perpetuate ableist systems and conditions, with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘ground floor spaces are too expensive, you can try the goods lift but it’s broken’. Such excuses are rife, often coalescing around small budgets, lack of staff, and limited options. These justifications suggest that Disabled People are asking for too much; that we are being unreasonable and demanding to seek inclusion. However, COVID-19 stopped everyone in their tracks, and forced the artist-led, along with more established organisations, to consider how it can continue to operate while barriers limit everyone’s engagement. It is hugely important that this opportunity to learn is taken seriously, and is seized as the first step towards change.
Galleries and artists in the North of England have responded to the challenge of working during the pandemic in a range of ways, largely using online platforms as sites for arts engagement. Online exhibitions have become the most common translation of traditional art gallery presentation to a space that can be accessed from home, with rectangular screens emulating the white cube. An example of this is Soft Spot’s Picture Window, curated by Bryony Dawson. Centred around a black and white drawing of a window, hyperlinks direct us to six works — photographs and writing embedded into the website as well as videos, and PDF texts. Soft Spot resides in the basement of Mirabel Studios in Manchester. The space hosts a different curatorial team each year, and is open for applications from graduates of Manchester School of Art. It is a tight space, accessed only by a flight of stairs, which gets loud and difficult to navigate during private views — it is not an environment for Disabled People. These conditions are true for many artist-led spaces. In this case, the staging of an exhibition online enabled engagement for an audience who would not be able to physically spend time in the space.
Workplace, Gateshead, took a different tack on their digital exhibition TRANSMISSION. Vastly different to Soft Spot, Workplace is an established commercial gallery founded in 2002 by Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow. TRANSMISSION is viewed via a virtual tour, with a rendering of the gallery that you move through as you would the physical space. It feels weird to be watching a film on a fake TV screen on a wall; to see a two metre tall painting as ten centimetres on my screen. Digitally rendered exhibitions make me aware of what I’m missing, like a bad vegan chicken burger that tastes like chemicals. What I do love about this, however, is the potential for a 3D map of a gallery to be available as ordinary accessibility information. Workplace’s website lists no accessibility details about their current spaces, which is a frustrating and damaging standard for smaller galleries. Often when they are listed, the information is too vague to know what exactly is coming. With this model, for example, I can see that on a good day the stairs are doable, but on a bad day I would need to stay on the ground floor. These models could act as a helpful tool to plan trips and relieve anxiety for disabled art audiences.
Pink is a project space that was due to open in Manchester in March 2020. Instead of moving their planned shows to digital venues, curators Katy Morrison and Liam Fallon took the time to work with a website developer, creating a distinct space to house the research that provides the backbone for their curatorial mission. This creates an interesting level of transparency — an emerging curatorial team learning publicly online, developing their thoughts in real time. Journal notes are published alongside self-authored texts that read as manifestos. I’m glad to see an approach that focuses not on recreating a now-impossible planned programme, but instead on the possibilities of this new circumstance. Unlike the two previous examples, Pink hasn’t sought to reopen a gallery space on the internet, instead opening up their programme structure and laying bare the bones of the organisation. They have considered that online programming doesn’t have to mirror physical programming, and are exploring the potential of digital space to be more thoughtful; a site of slow paced critical engagement. In this way, Pink are considering not just a viewer’s access to an artwork, but how they engage with the work going on behind-the-scenes of the organisation. This sort of insight into a gallery’s operation is often invisible to those outside of a tight network; they are ideas discussed at private views over white wine. With this online project, Pink communicates ideas in a way that bypasses the need for in-person networking, and opens up the conversation to include a wider range of people. This could be developed further though inclusive web design — such as the addition of audio formats, or easy read copy.
Outside of screen-based work, some curators are facilitating physical encounters through mail art. One such project is Postal Gallery run by Tom Manning, which featured twenty five artists. Postal Gallery produced small paper gallery spaces, in the form of a template that when folded made a 3D space with three rooms, a door, four windows and four spaces for artworks. These ‘galleries’ are posted between contributors, who each create a small scale 2D work, and post it on to the next artist. Though the internet is a powerful tool for creating opportunities to look at art, it is important to remember that not all people have access to a computer, and not all can use a computer in the same way that Non-Disabled People can — in 2015, a study found that 27% of disabled adults had never used the internet. Projects such as Postal Gallery could operate as a way to engage with arts audiences who are unable to access gallery spaces and technology.
As galleries begin to slowly reopen, we are seeing more shows with private views that require booking, with crowd control and social distancing measures. Soft Spot recently opened Flat Instance, with an extended opening from 11:00am until 5:00pm, and limited numbers of people in the space. AIR Gallery in Altrincham opened Queer Contemporaries with a ticketed PV, complete with time slots for viewers to maintain social distancing. This standard creates the potential to plan a visit that reduces sensory overload, anxiety, and allows for mobility aids like wheelchairs to be used more easily. Following Tesco’s lead of early accessible hours for the vulnerable, art galleries should be able to facilitate an accessible private view, if not for the whole evening then for a set amount of time. This model could also be extended to accessible hours during all gallery opening times, wherein works with sound could be quieter, staff could be available to assist visitors, lights could be dimmed, and more seating made available. These changes seem small, which begs the question — why has it taken this long?
In the context of our current upheaval these new features of visual arts programming have set a standard for accessibility. The long gone pre-pandemic norms were letting people down, and the ‘new normal’ can do better. It’s not difficult to create an environment that is easier to engage with for Disabled People if accessibility is prioritised, and this pandemic has proven that it is possible. Though there is still much to be done, most galleries have expanded their programme to include accessible options for their audiences. Now we must insist that these accessible options are continued. A huge change needed to happen in order to create an environment that not only allows Disabled People to participate in arts, but helps us to thrive; there is now an opportunity for that change to be embedded. We can’t go back to normal.
TRANSMISSION was on show at Workplace Gallery between 17 July and 5 September 2020.
PINK are continuing to update their web platform with research and learning until the opening of a physical space is possible.
Queer Contemporaries is available to view online indefinitely here.
This feature is supported by Arts Council England as part of Corridor8’s 2019/20 critical writing programme.