Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Visually impaired and the arts

Jorge Paez, age 11, sat at a banquet table at the Jewish Museum running his fingers tenderly over a brass reproduction of an ancient menorah. That he was encouraged to ignore what amounts to a commandment — "Please do not touch the art" — is, in this case, understandable: The museum's goal is to help the visually impaired experience the joy of art. The goal is met this month — which is Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month, an international initiative to make art more accessible to those with sight loss — and every other month of the year, as well.

At the Jewish Museum, Jorge and others examined reproductions of ancient artifacts made of clay, stone, and brass. The slow, controlled motion of fingers upon the objects conveyed the intense curiosity and reverence of the several attendees, and the items are passed with the help of trained volunteers who follow each piece along the table with vivid explanations as to the piece's ritual, social, and practical significance.

"It's a joy to touch this stuff at last," Karen Eisenstadt, 62, of Forest Hills, said. "I've been to an awful lot of museums where I can't touch, and it's wonderful to be told I can touch for once," she said. At her feet sat her guide dog, Jessa, a three-year-old black lab retriever.

This isn't the only access program for visitors with disabilities, the director of education at the Jewish Museum, Nelly Silagy Benedek, said: "In addition to the touch tours we also offer verbal imagining tours where educators describe the works of art in the galleries."

Ms. Benedek believes that the feeling of being present in the gallery is a vital component of the experience. "Participants get the feel of walking through the gallery, the smells, the sounds, which are all part of the museum experience," she said.

Jorge's group was organized by the staff of the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, which is one of America's oldest and most relied upon facilities for the blind or visually impaired. The library began life more than a century ago when the New York Free Circulating Library for the Blind was established in 1895 by Richard Randall Ferry, a wealthy hat manufacturer who suddenly became blind.

The library serves approximately 12,000 blind or visually impaired people each year, and circulates annually through the mail roughly 300,000 books to anyone whose condition disables them from reading standard print.

"We even have three recording studios on the fourth floor," the head librarian, Bob McBrien, said. In the recording studio, volunteers from the world of theater record about 50 titles per year of books of local interest to New Yorkers.

Today, the library opens a month-long exhibit, "Sense & Sensuality," which features multisensory works of art on loan from BlindArt, a British nonprofit organization. The exhibit was organized by Art Education for the Blind, which was founded by Elisabeth Salzhauer Axel in 1987, when her grandmother, who was an artist and lifelong aesthete, began to lose her sight. AEB's mission is to make art, art history, and visual culture accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired, and to provide and promote the tangible benefits of art education, museum visits, and the actual creation of art for children and adults with sight loss.

On the museum side, MoMA has a long history of innovative access programs for the blind or visually impaired. In 2003, the museum hosted a multisensory art history program on the Matisse/Picasso exhibition. As part of the program, participants used tactile diagrams that consisted of patterns with raised dots and lines to examine famous paintings such as Henri Matisse's "Piano Lesson" and Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."

Participants were also invited to touch selected sculptures, and MoMA educators shepherded gloved visitors with elaborate descriptions as they touched the surfaces of sculptures by Matisse and Picasso.

In addition to touch tours, MoMA also features an audio program that provides vivid and detailed descriptions of key works from the museum's collection. Expert commentary, musical accompaniment, and historical references enhance the experience.

MoMA Audio is available free of charge, and transcripts of this and all museum audio programs are available in regular and large print upon request (for free). For those more interested in hands-on experience, MoMA periodically offers art courses for children and adults featuring the work of major modern and contemporary artists, where participants are treated to touch tours, verbal description, tactile diagrams, enlarged color reproductions, and actual art production activities.

To its programs for blind and partially sighted adults, MoMA has added "Art inSight," a monthly program held in the museum's galleries. This program engages participants though extensive verbal description.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the permanent collection can be experienced through verbal imaging tours for blind or visually impaired art lovers. Last week, the Met held its monthly "Picture This!" workshop, where four guides led 26 blind or partially sighted visitors on a two-hour tour of the "Cézanne to Picasso: Ambrose Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde" exhibition. The specially trained guides escorted individuals through the galleries, vividly described the art on view, and gave exciting biographical and contextual information.

The Met also offers a book for children combining color reproductions, large print, Braille, and tactile pictures. The book introduces many of the museum's masterpieces, and a limited number of copies are available free of charge to teachers of students who are blind or partially sighted and eligible organizations.

Across the River, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has been cultivating The Alice Recknagel Ireys Fragrance Garden for more than 50 years. This 60-foot-by-100-foot space was the country's first garden created for the visually impaired and blends the fragrances of an eclectic range of plants including lemon verbena, marigold, and lavender. Visitors are encouraged to reach out and touch a fuzzy oval of Lamb's Ear, or a few tendrils of mint.

Braille labels etched on brass plaques identify the specimens. The Fragrance Garden has its very own curator, Caleb Leech, whose task to keep the garden exciting involves a plethora of important considerations such as color. Ms. Leech explains that while color might seem like a superfluous component to the cultivation of a garden for the visually impaired, it is used by nature to attract pollinators, which means a seasonal concert of birds, bees, and dragonflies. The soft explosion of petals, the weight of a flower in the hand, and the rush of its fragrance is a warm reminder that beauty can be captured by many senses — not just sight.


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