Tate Modern inaccessibility of art
Image: Toa Heftiba / Unsplash

Box-ticking and last-minute modifications: the inaccessibility of art galleries

A recent tweet by Ciara O’Connor, a writer for the Irish Sunday Independent newspaper, called to attention her experience of not being able to appreciate the Tate Modern’s current Olaf Eliassion exhibition, In Real Life, due to its inaccessibility for wheelchair users. Artwork was placed too high for her to interact with, and one of the main installations, ‘Your Spiral View’,– a tunnel created to resemble a kaleidoscope – required you to walk up steps to enter.

This has sparked a conversation about how accessible art galleries and the visual arts are. In an age where there are so many ways to create a space that is inclusive for all, it bodes the question: why are public spaces still so geared towards the able-bodied population?

Some believe that non-able-bodied people must simply accept that they cannot experience some things to their full potential. But this shouldn’t be the case – especially not in the world of art. This community is one that is often heralded as being accepting and inclusive, but to represent all facets of life you must accommodate everyone.

The ability to enter and become immersed in an exhibition should not be an afterthought or a privilege for some

This is especially true for the visual arts. Despite its variety of forms, its ability to be displayed in galleries or museums very easily opens the opportunity to be inclusive to all – the institutions just have to make this a priority.

Making a gallery accessible to everyone starts in the planning, and the layout is vital in ensuring that everyone has access to the art. The position of installations should allow for walkways that are wide enough for wheelchair access; light features should come with a pre-warning for those with light sensitive conditions before they enter the space, and art should be displayed at appropriate heights. The ability to enter and become immersed in an exhibition should not be an afterthought or a privilege for some.

But when it comes to the art itself, who is responsible? If an artist is creating an installation piece, or a work of art that is meant for the public to interact with, who is in charge of making it accessible? Do the galleries have the right to modify the work, or is it the artist’s responsibility to ensure the work is accessible for their guests?

As institutions dedicated to allowing public access to art, surely they must take some responsibility?

In the case of the In Real Life exhibition, the sculpture was unable to be modified by the gallery technicians, and the artist himself apologised but admitted that even with a ramp the corridor is too narrow for a wheelchair user. But if an artist is creating work intended for all, surely they have to think about everyone.

Perhaps this lack of thought comes from the wider issue of the under-representation of artists with disabilities. How can we expect art to be accessible to all if those who have a disability are barred from having their work displayed? Those in minority groups have been fighting for years to see themselves represented in the art around them. It seems to me the way to increase the accessibility of art starts with increasing the number of disabled artists exhibited, allowing a sense of understanding to be found in the work that surrounds us.

However, there is a point at which the gallery has a responsibility to provide accessibility. As institutions dedicated to allowing public access to art, surely they must take some responsibility?

Upon my research I found help I didn’t know existed

This could be in the form of free audio tours or making braille descriptions available. A new age of art exhibitions is just around the corner; 3D printing of fine art, adding a sign language interpreter to tours, tactile tours where guests can touch the art work, and booklets with large prints of the exhibition writing are all possibilities – we just need to get there faster. Not many places offer these facilities at the moment, and some require long-term planning to put in place.

Despite the fact that on the surface it can often seem that there isn’t much on offer, hidden beneath is an infrastructure of support – the catch is you have to search for it.

Upon my research I found help I didn’t know existed. Being dyslexic, I can sometimes find certain writing hard to read, or a pressure to read faster as the crowd moves on, as it takes longer for me to process a sentence than others. Yet, these were things I had accepted, things I had to deal with.

If you do not know what is on offer, if it is only in the small print, are they just ticking a box or are they just clueless about how to help?

From looking at websites’ accessibility sections for galleries such as the Tate, I found that they can offer overlays, prints of the information and audio tours, all of which was help I didn’t know I could access. Although it is a positive step in making galleries more accessible, this was something I had to seek out.

One way art galleries can increase their accessibility is simply by explaining aid they have on offer. It is not enough to simply say that they are accessible spaces – they need to explain how. If you do not know what is on offer, if it is only in the small print, are they just ticking a box or are they just clueless about how to help?

Either way it’s obvious that more can be done. O’Connor’s tweet has highlighted that despite many galleries working hard to improve their access to art, there is still a way to go. It’s about creating opportunities and forward thinking in planning – not last-minute modifications or programs.

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