The appreciation of art can be a powerful point of human connection. People come to MoMA from all over the world, each with rich, diverse personal experiences. A moment in front of an artwork at MoMA could be the spark for two seemingly different people to share a connection, conversation, and inspiration. Access to these fundamentally enriching experiences is imperative. MoMA’s commitment to access for all is embedded in the history of the institution itself, beginning with one of the Museum’s earliest innovations in art education: the establishment of the War Veterans Art Center for soldiers returning from the Second World War. It has been an honor and a pleasure to build upon this tradition in my work on Access Programs at MoMA for the last 20 years.
A few of the best parts of my job include…
Touch Tours, which allow blind and partially sighted people to touch sculptures from our collection—including original, mostly bronze, works by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Rodin. As a Touch Tour guide, I am allowed to touch the art too. We wear gloves to protect the art, but they still let through texture and temperature. It’s pure heaven.
In designing tours, programs, and special events for people with disabilities, I work with an extraordinary team of smart, dedicated people. Our offerings are always different, inspired by the art itself, and designed to be appropriate for the particular audience they are meant to serve. Our programs aim to foster connections between art, participants, and their personal experiences. For instance, a few years ago we held a sing-along for people with dementia and their care partners in one of our theaters. We chose songs from the Great American Songbook that resonated with works of art from our collection. For many of the individuals who were experiencing a loss of words, the lyrics to these familiar songs came flooding back with joy. More recently, in May 2015, we designed a free day for people aged 65 and up as part of our newest initiative to serve older adults (including older adults with disabilities) called Prime Time. This special event bridged generations and ways of interacting with art, including special gallery programs, artmaking workshops, sketching in the Sculpture Garden, and even an intergenerational marching band.
I’ve also had the privilege of getting to know our regulars. MoMA’s Access Programs are attended mostly by people from the New York Tri-State area who come back month after month, and a solid community has formed over the years. Being an art educator for these programs has enabled me to get to know our regular visitors in a truly meaningful way. Through Create Ability, I’ve watched children grow from toddlers to teenagers. In Meet Me at MoMA, I’ve heard care partners speak about new insights they have into their loved ones, which came about through conversations about paintings. I’ve learned about sculptures from blind participants by exploring them through touch and noticing things with my hands that I never would have noticed with my eyes. We’ve connected over art, understanding, and empathy. We’ve laughed and cried together. We’ve shared meals, happy occasions, and funerals, too.
I was handed the baton in 1994 by Sarah Stephenson and Richard Barr, who were the Assistant Director and the Volunteer Coordinator, respectively, in the Department of Education. They were juggling Access Programs on top of an already full plate of responsibilities. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, MoMA offered Touch Tours as well as regularly scheduled gallery tours in American Sign Language. As the first full-time Access Coordinator, I had the luxury of being able to dedicate my full attention to making MoMA accessible to all visitors.
Thanks to incredible support we’ve been able to continue Touch Tours and ASL programs while increasing our offerings to serve over 9,000 individuals each year through monthly Access Programs, as well as programs and partnerships—both on and off-site—for special education schools and service organizations. Even more visitors come to the Museum on their own, with friends, or with family.
Our Accessibility Task Force, made up of representatives from departments from across the institution, helps to ensure that a philosophy of disability equality and inclusivity are embedded in the DNA of the Museum. Our goal is for visitors to feel welcome and engaged the moment they walk through our doors. The new accessibility training video we recently created is used internally with front-line staff as well as with curators and exhibition designers. We are happy to share it with other cultural institutions.
Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s Director, says that accessibility is not something that is accomplished. Instead, it is something that we as an institution are always striving toward because our definition of accessibility evolves over time. Using the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act as our newest benchmark, I look forward to another memorable 20 years of working toward our goal of eliminating physical, programmatic, and attitudinal barriers.