Reflections on CAKE Event: ‘Disability and Accessibility in the Arts’

Several staff members of Research and Cultural Collections attended the recent CAKE (Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange) event on ‘Disability and Accessibility in the Arts’. CAKE is an event series that aims to bring together a wide audience of University researchers and professional staff with external partners to discuss a dedicated theme, share knowledge, and explore opportunities for collaboration.

This event was inspired by the upcoming issue of the online collaborative journal Midlands Art Papers (MAP) for August 2019. Led by Editor Dr Sophie Hatchwell, MAP is run by the University of Birmingham and a combination of 11 partner galleries across the Midlands, and publishes articles that showcase new research about local collections. This event provided an opportunity to elaborate on MAPs previous work and collaborations, and to discuss issues relating to disability, access, and inclusion within an audience of varied disciplines and backgrounds.

The first speaker for the event was Dr Nóra Veszprémi, the current Leverhulme Research Fellow within the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies at University of Birmingham. Nóra explained her research background in Hungarian and Central European art, and the relationship between visual culture and national identity. Nóra discussed the Hungarian artist Károly Kotász (1872-1941), a disabled artist who has a painting featured in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery entitled Stormy Landscape with Blue and Red Figures that is now on public display for the first time. Using feminist art history frameworks to consider Kotász in more detail, the speaker discussed Kotász’ impairment in relation to his ability to travel with his work to galleries across the UK and Europe. It was interesting to consider the limitations that disabled artists may have come across within the nineteenth century, not only in the art they create (for instance, Kotász primarily painted the Hungarian landscape) but also in physically attending exhibitions and promoting his work in person, networking and socialising with other artists and professionals while also raising his profile. Questions that were asked in relation to this came down to the contrasts of limitations in the nineteenth versus the twenty-first century – had things moved on? Certainly it was noted that physical accessibility has improved in many ways, however modern phenomena such as the internet and social media were noted as potential new ‘obstacles’ for many in the wider sector with the expectation and pressure to constantly be in communication noted as an internal problem for all.

The second speaker was Mike Layward, current Artistic Director for Disability Arts in Shropshire (DASH). Mike discussed his views on the social model of disability and the nature of various stigmas and barriers versus the complexity of access requirements. He also raised interesting points with regards to terminology such as ‘neurodiversion’ and ‘neurotypical’, which became a part of the subsequent discussions later on in the event. Mike also spoke about the work of DASH in using the arts as a platform for social change, including their current Curatorial Commissions programme across the Midlands, which supports the development of disabled curators. This was a fantastic organisation to learn about, and Mike crucially noted that such opportunities to work with Learning and Engagement teams further fuel the sharing of knowledge and good practice relating to access, but also leave a legacy for the institution or organisation that they work in.

The final speaker for the day was Kate DeRight, the Artistic Director for Spectra, an integrated performance company who create, utilise and promote multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary, site-specific, immersive performances. Founded as a collaboration for diverse theatre, the cast work within an inclusive environment to diversify their thinking and experience. It was wonderful to learn more about this organisation, which Kate highlighted provided a platform for ‘unheard voices to be amplified’ and that pushed boundaries. Future plans for the company included tours delivered to wider audiences, and Kate ended with a powerful message that the company ultimately aimed to celebrate minds that work in different ways, and provide an example of the world we all want to live in that provides enrichment and engagement.

The following discussions with the speakers often came back to the issue of terminology, with many noting the implications of definitions that may ‘other’ disabled artists and audiences and have a potential wider impact. A key point was made relating to the barriers that exist for both disabled and non-disabled artists within the sector – this was discussed at length in relation to the visual arts, and was a really enlightening part of the event. Finally there was a brief overview of the unresolved issues in relation to access for the disabled, including the lack of available training, funding, networking opportunities, and access to critical writing – this was a particularly interesting discussion, as it nicely tied together with the work of DASH’s mentoring scheme.

Overall, it seems that there is a much wider need for continued discussion on this topic to continue to raise awareness and promote the need for working environments that facilitate blended and inclusive learning to become a standard practice. This was a fantastic and really valuable event!

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