Rant 86: 'Sorry, we can’t allow dogs in the gallery.'
Michèle Lazenby Untitled (red rose), Fusion commission, 2001
Most galleries these days are working hard to attract wider audiences and think that the measures they put in place are enough to make them fully inclusive. But are they doing everything they can to accommodate visitors with disabilities? Jon Cronshaw rants against unhelpful invigilators and organisations that don't make concessions for those with visual impairments.
Art galleries are strange places to visit for a guy with a guide dog. I’m visually impaired, and have been for most of my adult life. I also love the visual arts, and for many galleries, this is a difficult notion to grasp.
I’ll admit that the visual arts isn’t necessarily the most comfortable realm for the visually impaired. some galleries are not exactly the most considerate places to visit: darkened rooms; countless obstacles; grumpy invigilators; poorly-lit artworks; and trip wires surrounding paintings are just a few of the issues that a guy like me has to overcome on a gallery visit.
There are of course some instances where dark lighting and sporadic composition is necessary for the integrity of a particular work or installation.
I’ve been in galleries where I am unable to proceed to the next room because of something as simple as a poorly lit throughway. I could have asked for an invigilator’s help, and I’m sure they would have obliged but instead I turned on my heels and left – for those with disabilities, independence is very important, and based on the size and layout of the gallery, the provision of an alternative route would not have been a problem.
There is also a lack of understanding and awareness by some galleries regarding the presence of guide dogs. Guide dogs, by law, have exactly the same access as the general public. When a gallery asks if I can leave the guide dog in reception, or tells me which rooms I have to avoid, it is a needlessly humiliating and often confrontational experience. I wonder if they would ask a wheelchair-user to leave their chair in reception.
Steps have been made in recent years to improve the physical access of disabled users to the gallery space; but in terms of intellectual access, they leave a lot to be desired. Token gestures of appeasement tend to come in the form of a sculpture that you can touch, and objects that you can hear or smell. It is an incredibly patronising assumption to make that a person who is visually impaired would want the same intellectual relationship to art as a toddler.
It seems that the gallery environment needs a radical rethink: a wheelchair ramp and some braille on the lifts just won’t cut it anymore if a gallery wants to be an inclusive public space.
Contributed by Jon Cronshaw
Jon is a freelance writer and art historian based in Leeds. He completed a PhD in 2011 under the supervision of Benedict Read at the University of Leeds examining the art and identity of sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and has consulted on exhibitions such as 'Finding Adam' at Harewood House, Leeds.
The views expressed in The Rant are those of Jon Cronshaw and forum contributors and unless specifically stated are not those of Axisweb. See our terms and conditions