An exhibition called “Engage” is a “dream I’ve had for six years,” says Judith Chalmer. The executive director of VSA Vermont is talking about a touring, juried art show featuring 39 works by 35 artists who have “various disabilities.” But more than just a display of artworks, the twofold project is also about bringing access awareness to venues and gallery-goers alike. To Chalmer, it’s nothing short of “a moment of transformation statewide in terms of accessibility in cultural venues.”
Consider the radical notion, for example, that a person with limited sight could enjoy an art show — not to mention make art. “It hasn’t been understood how people with visual impairment could be patrons of the arts,” Chalmer says. “It’s an underserved population.” That’s an understatement. Even for VSA Vermont, whose mission is to pair the arts and individuals with a variety of disabilities, a focus on visual impairment is “a new one,” she notes.
That focus has entailed seeking training from national experts in audio inscription, as well as in ways to make a gallery exhibit more visually accessible. Something as simple as large-print labels, Chalmer points out, is useful to all gallerygoers — people can read them from a distance instead of having to jockey for a close-up position. Larger letters are also easier for those learning to read, or who are new to the English language.
VSA Vermont, with the help of the Vermont Arts Council and its accessibility consultant, Renee Wells, will provide technical assistance to the cultural venues participating in “Engage” — three to five galleries “that have physical access at least,” says Chalmer. The organization will also offer accessibility training to others. “This is growth for us to become a resource for venues around the state,” Chalmer says. “The calls are already coming in from galleries — ‘How can we train our staff to work with audio?’ We’re looking to travel the exhibit and pass along those skills.”
The nonprofit also partnered with Burlington City Arts and the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts to bring about “Engage.” The Flynn’s executive director, John Killacky, was a member of the jury, and the show will open at that venue’s Amy E. Tarrant Gallery later this month. The other jurors were Mickey Myers, director of the Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville; artist Janet Van Fleet of Cabot; and Greensboro-based artist Paul Gruhler, who also curated the exhibit.
Chalmer says the jurors “did not discuss disability”; they just considered the merits of the art, which was presented in a range of two-dimensional mediums. “There are artists who have been working for a long time, and others are brand new,” she says. “All are thrilled at the opportunity.” The process, Chalmer adds, “has connected us with artists we didn’t know before.”
For his part, Gruhler says working on “Engage” has been “a wonderful learning experience, getting to know what the challenges are for the artists every day.” From its electronic call to artists through assistance in framing the artworks, the project has “given them an opportunity to be in an exhibition — in some cases for the first time — and also to be able to take themselves seriously as artists.”
For the art-viewing public, too, “Engage” is likely to offer a twofold experience: bringing the work of artists with disabilities “to the forefront of cultural life in Vermont,” says Chalmer, and increasing awareness of how individuals with physical, developmental, psychiatric or visual challenges negotiate a world the rest of us take for granted.
“Engage” opens with a reception at the Flynn Center’s Amy E. Tarrant Gallery in Burlington on Sunday, February 26, 4-6 p.m. The exhibit remains on view there through April 29, and then will travel to other venues around the state. vsavt.org