Now that Amazon is selling high-end art, including million-dollar works by Claude Monet and Andy Warhol, alongside ebooks and blenders, speculation is afoot about how “Amazon Art” might change or even “demystify” art and the selling of it. Amazon Art has already made one small but significant innovation. Among the more than 4,500 artists represented are some who have developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The inclusion of artists with disabilities highlights a bigger issue, that of how to ensure that individuals with disabilities — developmental, intellectual, physical — can participate in and have equal access to the arts.
Right now, my teenage autistic son does not seem interested in looking at art or going to theatrical productions. He has a weekly art class at his school. He is not very interested in painting or drawing but art classes more than enhance his school curriculum, which consists mostly of instruction in pre-vocational and self-care skills (though sometimes he surprises us with a piece that shows his unique outlook on the world).
Los Angeles-based DAC Gallery, which represents some 140 artists with developmental disabilities, is one of the 150 art galleries and dealers on Amazon Art. The gallery is part of the nonprofit Exceptional Children’s Foundation, which oversees art studios that individuals with developmental disabilities can participate in. Artists from the program have had their work shown at the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and other venues.
As Allen Terrell, who directs the Exceptional Children’s Foundation’s art centers, says in Disability Scoop, “We have worked hard to create a professional-level art program for our clients with special needs. Being selected to participate in the launch of the Amazon Art program is a testament to us reaching that goal.”
There’s no question that it’s great that Amazon Art is providing a way to can make artworks by artists with developmental disabilities more available. Including artists with disabilities in such venues is just a start. Disability is not a subject that’s easy to get the public interested in. As the Guardian comments, “Sex-trafficking and serial killings sell tickets; cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy, not so much.”
At this year’s Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, more performances are featuring artists with disabilities who seek not just to talk about disability but “to show it – and with impressive up-frontness.” One example is Mucus Factory by Martin O’Brien, who has cystic fibrosis, a one-off performance based on O’Brien’s physiotherapy routine:
For five hours straight, he aims to produce as much mucus as possible – jumping on a trampoline, beating his chest – which he then uses as hair-gel, glitter glue and lubricant. For many sufferers, he says, the disease is “like a dirty little secret, something to be ashamed of. The important thing for me is to reclaim this stuff.”
For all that a number of artists with disabilities are in the annual Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, only a small percentage of its 2,871 shows are actually accessible to individuals with disabilities. Out of the 273 venues, only 120 are wheelchair accessible. Less than 1 percent of the performances are signed or captioned (a total of 25) and only 10 are audio-described.
One reason for this is that there is a “perception that [providing accommodations] cost[s] more,” says performer Robert Softley, who consults with arts organizations to help them make performances accommodate the needs of individuals with disabilities. He acknowledges that some accommodations can add costs, but not all. “At some point we just have to bite the bullet,” he emphasizes and not see making venues and performances accessible to all as an “extra” but as essential.
Dancer Claire Cunningham, who has osteoporosis, will be performing a piece called “Ménage à Trois,” about her “long-term relationship with her crutches” at the Fringe Festival. As she says, “people didn’t know this work was there. They could avoid it if they didn’t want to engage with it.”
That’s precisely why Amazon Art including artists with disabilities — putting paintings by Heather Cuellar and Santos Sanchez alongside those of famous artists – is a crucial step in helping to spur discussion about the arts and disabilities and, even more, to foster real change in the form of accommodations like sensory-friendly theatrical productions for autistic children. Exposing a wider audience to the creations and experiences of artists with disabilities benefits us all.
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