Kennedy Center Honors Cummer Museum Access Programs

lead-c06a0486-vsa-photo-by-ingrid-damianiThis past August, on the evening before I was due to accept the LEAD Community Asset Award on behalf of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, I was walking through Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory. It is a beautiful botanical garden that includes exotic plants and hothouses replicating deserts and rainforests. Making my way through one of the greenhouses, there was a family walking ahead of me – a man, his grown daughter, and a young man who, from experience, I could tell had some sort of cognitive disability. They gave me a wide berth and then looked at me apologetically, as if to say sorry if the young man was in my way, or if he made me uncomfortable. I didn’t have the chance to explain that I regularly work with students like him, that I oversee accessibility on behalf of a museum, or that I was in town to receive an award for that same work.
I had spent all week surrounded by experts in the fields of access and special education at the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disabilities Conference, where it was a given that whomever you were speaking to had likely spent years working to ensure the civil rights of people with disabilities. Now I was not fifteen minutes away from the conference center watching these two people self-consciously guiding their family member through this gorgeous place. I had previously been thinking about how far we, as a society, had come, but now … how far we have yet to go.lead-img_8794-fsdb-touch-tour-photo-by-amber-sesnick
I spent the rest of my visit reflecting not only on this encounter but on the presentations I had seen that week, the conversations I had, the connections I had made, and why, besides the fact that it is the law, we do this work. For me the answer is pretty simple: It is because I want the people I serve to have all the things I want for myself. I want the freedom to go wherever I please and participate in whatever I want. I don’t want to be discounted, or forgotten, or left out. And I don’t want anyone else to be either.
The Community Asset Award, presented by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts at their annual Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference, is a tremendous validation of the of the many years the Cummer Museum has been working to ensure access, through its exhibitions, programs, events, and classes. This award recognizes the achievements of those who continually demonstrate success with access initiatives, improving accessibility in their organization, city, state, or region, and marks the Cummer Museum as one of the premier providers of accessibility programming in the country.
lead-dsc_2994-women-of-vision-photo-by-amber-sesnickEach year, the Kennedy Center honors a select few arts administrators and organizations whose dedication has resulted in the advancement of inclusion of people with disabilities in the cultural arts, and whose efforts serve as an example to all in the field. The office of VSA (Very Special Arts), which merged with the Kennedy Center’s Office on Accessibility in 2011, is an international organization based within the Kennedy Center. The VSA was founded more than forty years ago by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith to provide arts and education opportunities for people with disabilities and increase access to the arts for all. Today, with fifty-two international affiliates and a network of nationwide affiliates, seven million people of all ages and abilities participate in VSA programs each year … in every aspect of the arts, from visual to performing to the literary arts.
A large part of the Cummer’s recognition was due to one such program – the museum’s long running VSA Festival. Celebrating its twenty-first year this past May, the VSA Festival has cumulatively welcomed over twenty-five thousand students with disabilities from across Northeast Florida to experience the museum. Growing from humble beginnings into an event that impacts students, teachers, families, volunteers, and community members alike, the VSA Festival provides a rare opportunity for students to experience art through all of their senses as they visit the Cummer’s Historic Gardens, Permanent Collection, and studios, while engaging in art-making, music, performance, and inclusion.

Read MoreWords By Matthew Patterson • Photos by Ingrid Damiani, Amber Sesnick

Author: Arbus

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