In today’s society, people with disabilities are often excluded because of accessibility issues and societal prejudices, and the arts are no exception. Although artists with disabilities are slowly being recognized for their talent — such as Ali Stroker, who recently made history as the first wheelchair-using Tony award-winning actor — we are still far from full accessibility (which is still a big issue) and equality.
The High Museum of Arts, Emory University’s Disability Studies Initiative and Full Radius Dance — which integrates dancers with disabilities — recognize the need for change and have partnered to help facilitate this necessary growth. The partnership includes a new initiative within the High’s permanent museum collection to research artwork by artists with disabilities.
The organizations have asked a number of important questions about the influence of disabilities within the arts while acknowledging the importance of access within a museum. The collaboration will culminate in a site-specific work performed by Full Radius this weekend and will also include year-round educational support by the High Museum education department.
Douglas Scott, Full Radius Dance’s artistic director, was first inspired to begin this project in 2009, when he attended a lecture by Emory English Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson about her book Staring: How We Look. In her book, Garland-Thomson analyzes why we as a society stare at individuals, particularly at people with “distinctive bodies.”
After the lecture, Scott began to actively search for artwork with representations of disability in museums, and late last year, he initiated the partnership with Emory and the High.
On July 14, the project will present its first performance, a work in progress by Full Radius in the Robinson Atrium of the High Museum of Art at 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. as part of the High’s July Second Sunday. The piece is based on four works from the High’s permanent collection: a jar by David Drake, an artist with a disability; Minotaurus by Nandipha Mntambo, which challenges preconceptions of the human body; a stainless steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor that expresses different ways to experience the world; and an oil painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat of a body that does not adhere to societal stereotypes of “normal.”
This performance will encourage audiences to consider the different ways museum collections can be experienced by the viewer. Benjamin Reiss, a Samuel Candler Dobbs professor and department chair at Emory who is involved in the university’s Disability Studies Initiative, notes that people with disabilities can experience a museum exhibition much differently.
“People with visual impairments, people who are deaf, people who move in wheelchairs, who are short in stature or who have distinctive cognitive functioning have different experiences of the artworks that are on display in a museum — and at times this can reveal new insights about the works themselves,” he says. “Full Radius’ performance will be a wonderful way to create a new kind of artwork based on those perceptual differences and the insights they yield.”