Section 1: The Problem
The accessibility problems presented in the display of Myein tell me that there is a larger issue for the arts than discriminatory practices through design. This problem proceeds from it like an evasive vine wound around the fine arts and choking out its very life. A thought occurred to me, chilling me to the deepest depths of my soul. The arts are in danger. I do not mean to connote receding funding or arts education, although such issues are important and we must address them. I suggest the meaning of fine art is in need of saving.
The fine arts are the manifestation of our humanity. Art does not become fine art to reveal its innermost wealth by its mere existence. What one has to understand is how art works become works of fine art. They do this via an engagement with the art world system. One way to understand this is by understanding how art interacts with the parts of a public and the artists who create it.
The rose is for the plant. That is, the work is for the artist. The father of abstraction, Wessiley Kandinsky, thought the creation of good or poignant art was sort of preservation and evolution of the human spirit. In this way, though the work is the artist’s vital expression of spirit and mind, “art” is only poignant in maturation; subsequently, art’s real value is ephemeral without a public. A work of art cannot fully realize its life as a manifestation of humanity without a humanity to experience it. It cannot endure, realizing its full meaning for the age from which it springs nor for future ages, without that public. The water, fertilizer and the gilded pot are for and of the public. In this care, the plant blooms and blooms through the ages. Thus it is that the pot becomes for the flower life-sustaining.
In this context, the ideal observers or public for an object of art (be it a work of architecture, gallery art, literature or performance) matters to how we will understand that art. Therefore, who collectively is given the capability to react to objects of art will, if a selective group, only be conducive to a felonious understanding of the human experience.
The water and fertilizer are the observers and the art world’s reflective writings in criticism, history and theory. I mean no insult by this; I have only gratitude for critics. After all, the cradle of the alchemical homunculus is feces. Accordingly, we artists require such a nutrient, which is the examinations that the traditions of art criticism and theory provide. Those examinations give works of art a life beyond our studios and the many places where our art is presented.[i] The problem is the art world public is horribly wanting in diversity. There is a persistent lack of racial diversity and ongoing sexism throughout much of the arts and these issues have become to some extent common conversation in the art world consciousness. More than at any point in human history the assumed possible members of the art world public can now consist of people with a broader range of bodies and minds. This is thanks to the civil rights and social justice movements. Thus, the way we handle work must be considered to permit art to fulfill its highest aspiration as a representation of humanity. When we limit the public we limit the reciprocal relationship that brings meaning, or dare I say value, keeping it from becoming what it could be.
Section 2: Questions
In opposition to Georgia Kleege I claimed Hamilton was not at fault for making an environment omitting the blind as ideal observers. Rather, I posited that Kleege misallocates the accessibility problems and I claimed those problems were the domain of the organizers: the Guggenheim Collection, the curators and one could even assume the U.S. government. My claim might be true for Myein but that does not mean it would always be the case. After all, one might point out, Myein was displayed over thirteen years ago, and in another country, so our laws and attitudes may not have seemed applicable for organizers. This is why I felt I should test such a claim. On the other hand, I knew there was something to my claim that is far reaching, for what I read on the Venice Biennale website and the utter disregard they showed for my emails where I inquired about access disturbed me. The measures the Venice Biennale takes to inform PWD about access remain unclear. To boot this is now over a decade from the time of Myein.[ii] How have we not achieved more?
All the covert and overt exclusion that I have found inspired me to ask the question: Is it the responsibility of an artist to be aware of the bodies their art excludes? And thus, is this a moral question or simply a question of the quality of practice? By this I mean does it make for bad art to create work for a narrowed audience (an able bodied audience) which is thusly, in my view, art that precludes any real chance of engagement with the whole of humanity, thereby defeating the work? I cannot say I have an answer for this inquiry, although I will surely take this as an ongoing question within my own studio practice. I wondered what I might find in Hamilton’s more recent work shown in the U.S. I studied her website for something that was created as a permanent installation to test my claim.
I found Hamilton’s work titled Tower (2007), created in collaboration with Steve Oliver and Jensen Architects. It is located at the Oliver Ranch in Sonoma County, Geyserville, California. The piece has been awarded the AIA, San Francisco 2008 Merit Award for Excellence in Architecture and is a highlight attraction of the Oliver Ranch. It was perfectly inaccessible–not just the object of the art but also the grounds, or that is the “gilded pot.”
The Tower was built as a performance space to bring sound to the landscape. Hamilton calls it “the flute of the landscape.”[iii] Hamilton was inspired by the Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick’s Well) in Orvieto, Italy. This connection is not difficult to gather from the structure’s form which is also reminiscent of WWII lookout towers. The structure is 78 feet tall and made of a warm-grey, smooth, sandblasted concrete.[iv] It is positioned in a basin at the foot of a hill surrounded by trees. It has two entrances: one lower into the base and the other higher on the opposing side to give separate access to two helical parallel staircases with 128 steps each. Both staircases connect to one, but not both, of the entrance points and they coil around the inside of the structure never meeting. The width of the staircases narrows as they ascend upward toward the round walk at the top. The handrails are shiny metal and rounded – smooth to the touch. The entrances are a lot like standard doorways but turned on their sides. The entrances seem like larger, open versions of the semi-irregularly placed windows. The windows are really more like light well bench seats, which appear throughout the Tower in a variety of sizes of rectangles. The Tower is open to the air at the top. Its base features a pool of placid water that the bottoms of both of the staircases descend into, disappearing. The Tower was designed as a performance space, so in addition to the nature of it as an object of fine art, art takes place inside it. The attention to acoustics in its design, one could say, makes the landscape sing. Light flows down from the top and from the recessed light wells but the light wells and the top opening are ineffective windows. So it is that the landscape does not nearly flow in as much as the sounds of performers pour out.
The home of the Tower is Oliver Ranch, a sculpture park peppered with earthworks by 19 artists.[v] The website says tours take place April 15th to June 1st and September 15th to November 1st each year. Tours are open to all who pay a donation to any designated nonprofit. In this way the Oliver Ranch not only acts as a sort of depository of earthworks but as a sort of fundraising aggregate for nonprofits. The Oliver Ranch began quaintly as a pasture for sheep owned by Steve and Nancy Oliver. They commissioned work by well-known artists with the ethic that they would give unlimited time and creative room to artists, allowing work to be made outside of the art commoditization model where the dealing of art works appreciates their value. One could say that the Ranch is about reclaiming of the real value of art. That is by nurturing the wealth of art work in its full bloom of creativity–within the creative process–over whatever monetary amount could be assigned to it through buying and selling of art. Nice, right? Well, I would say somewhat; there are some challenges for a private collection intending to do this, as the role of a public has not been attended to within the core ethic.
The main issue is that if the collection remains in the hands of the collector, unviewed by a public, the work suffers since the art then loses its highest purpose – a dialog with culture. But this was not the intention of the Olivers; they meant to share their collection. This much is evident when one considers the amazing lengths they go to in personally hosting tours. A subsequent issue is, in choosing to take a previously private, site-specific collection and share it with the public, difficulties surely arise if the place containing the work was not designed for a diverse public. This is exactly what the Olivers have on their hands now. This problem could be thought of as both a growing pain and an unforeseen consequence of the core ethic, but I would ask what truly great work of art does not have conceptual difficulties to overcome?
Before I first read the Oliver Ranch’s website I expected that the actual Tower would be somewhat accessible to PWD, beyond the obvious inaccessibility issues within the work itself. As the Tower is a casing for stairs, wheelchair and walker users would not be able to fully use it, and certainly the soundscape performance art could not really be closed-captioned for the Deaf and hard of hearing. I had assumed that wheelchair users could maybe roll up and peek inside, but what I read flat out perplexed me. The website reads:
The tour length is 2-3 hours and it covers approximately 2.5 miles with 600 feet of up and down elevation change. It can be likened to a light hike in the woods as the paths are unpaved. The tour is not wheelchair accessible and comfortable walking shoes are recommended.[vi] [
Now I need to say that it is a good thing that the Olivers are upfront about the difficulty of access but it might be more helpful to say why it is not accessible and let visitors decide for themselves if they wish to take the tour. This requires a bit more description. An apology would not be a bad addition. Sometimes access is not in place yet when it is in process. When that is the case, apologizing and stating what the inaccessibility issues are exactly (which includes the needs of PWD as a possible public) shows regard and respect. They also mention that there is not a toilet on site, which can offer some issues for PWD and those with temporary conditions such as pregnancy. Additionally, I found that one would have to climb up onto the bench seat entrance and bend one’s head down just to enter. This provides more issues for a plethora of bodies and if the facilitator wanted to physically assist those unable to move their own body to enter I think we could all agree there might be some liability issues. I was told they get a few portable toilets for large-scale performances but those cannot be an ideal addition to the landscape. I did not understand how this was legal. I watched several documentaries showing the construction of the Tower and how landscaping that could have been made more accessible was put back in place. I had what I needed: clear proof.
Section 3: The Solution
I had my answer: Hamilton does, knowingly or unknowingly, create fundamentally inaccessible art today and in the U.S. The Tower was the actual problem not only its presentation. So the answer is that sometimes it is the artist who makes art inaccessible. It is not as black and white as I thought. There are exceptions and I knew this would be wise for me to acknowledge. The conclusion I draw is it’s not enough to simply educate those who facilitate the presentation of art, literature and performance to an art world public, but we must educate artists and even collectors as well.
But because I am, well, me, I could not just let it go there. I want results and I am unconformable just posing a question without presenting some thought or answer that could help in solving the problem. So I asked, Why was the Tower permitted? I thought that this question might help me in learning how to raise awareness about the possible implications of such exclusion. I wondered if like a photograph (which is not experienceable by a completely blind person) this got away with ADA violations because it was art. I did not know but I thought it might be something protected under freedom of speech.
I did not know where to start. So I first called Regional Art and Culture Council (RACC) in the hope they might have an answer. I spoke with Peggy Kendellen, Public Art Manager, who recommended I speak with Kristin Calhoun, another RACC Public Art Manager. We talked about my observations in great depth. She was stumped at how the building of the Tower was permitted, saying that she takes the ADA seriously, making sure our public art follows guidelines. We spoke briefly about some poor accommodations I have noted in Portland where PWD are treated “separate but equal” in the same sort of doctrine legally overturned in Brown v. Board of Education. This seemed to surprise her so I offered myself as a resource. I said what I always say, “For the most part accessibility to art is just another administrative task but for PWD it is our lives. Most just know not what they do.”
On the matter of the Tower, she directed me to contact Patrick Mullin, Customer Service PR Ombudsman for the Sonoma County, California Permitting and Resource Management Office. I called and left a message. I chose to take the position that the permit must have been within the code and I was just unaware of the loophole the Tower slid through. I did not want to “start something” as I greatly appreciated the work itself and this line of investigation seemed to be going in the direction of tattling. So I chose to assume the best. I took a few antacids and called it a day. When I received Mullin’s return call I launched straight into explaining the purpose of the Ranch and of the Tower as a performance space. He informed me that the Tower was permitted in 2004, and that from the description I provided, although on what appeared to him as private land, it was made with the intent to have a public use. Therefore, he felt, the Tower was in possible violation. He stated that he personally had no firsthand knowledge because the permit was filed prior to his instatement. He asserted that the majority of what he does is compliance based, and that his office is working to stiffen guidelines via several revisions to the Sonoma County Section 11 of the public building code. He said that the 2001 version of the code was in place at the time of the permit and since then there had been several revisions including one to be implemented this year. It will require 40% of the team working on projects to have a CASp certification (a special certification for accessibility). He boasted that in this regard his county has more protections then the federal ADA guidelines, but violation still happen. He despaired, saying, “I educate and educate and people do not listen and then they are surprised when they are sued.” I told him that I just wanted to know why it was permitted and was not interested in getting anyone sued. That simply learning that the Tower “probably shouldn’t have been permitted” did not help me. I also noted that I would think it useless to get a copy of the permit since it would be unintelligible for me. He gave me the name Richard Skaff.
Skaff’s work history includes almost 20 years in the restaurant business. After an accident (a 35 foot fall while trimming a tree), he opened an Independent Living Center and then created three positions within the City of San Francisco, including Chief Building Inspector and ADA Coordinator for the City’s Department of Public Works. In 2006, he retired from the last position he created within the City, Deputy Director on Disability for the Mayor’s Office. Skaff has been involved in the creation of state access codes and still, after over 30 years, participates as a member and co-chair of the State Fire Marshal’s Advisory Committee and is a member of the State Architect’s Access Advisory Committee. Skaff has also been a member of three of the U.S. Access Board’s advisory committees.
When I first spoke to Skaff, I raised the issues of access as best I could describe them. I told him about one issue that troubled me: some of the groups performing in the Tower which may or may want to receive funding from government resources would be in violation of the ADA regulations to receive funding. The groups might not know they broke the law until it was too late. Skaff, having just completed a few accessibility projects with California public art, found this an interesting problem and said he would help me. I thought he would just get the permit and read it but he did so much more. I just wanted to know why but he wanted to fix it.
Skaff looked into the issue, assessing mainly how the public nature of the Ranch evolved. He swiftly reported to me. He concluded that now, the Ranch is considered truly public since the private collection is in the process of being transferred to the care of a 501c3. Also, he found that the Tower was clearly in violation when it was first permitted since the space was always meant to be semi-public. It had nothing to do with it being art that it, as I put it, “got away with it.” But he did not stop there, that’s not his style. He contacted The Community Foundation of Sonoma County (CFSC) which is engaged in mentoring the Olivers as they transfer their land, and subsequently the earthwork collection, in allotments, to the ownership of their new Oliver Ranch Foundation, a 501c3 corporation. Skaff shared with me that the decision to form the Foundation was made by the Olivers as a means to ensure the legacy of their collection and the giving which it creates. He contacted them and told them of my observation not using my name. He then asked my permission to tell them who I was. I had a fear that bringing up such an issue might negatively affect my career if the intent of my investigation was not received in the cooperative spirit that I hope to create through this project, but I reluctantly agreed. He passed on my contact information. Skaff plans to continue to work with the CFSC to examine the access issues.
The mentorship CFSC provides to the Olivers has the potential to create better access. CFSC says that they provide:
In-depth knowledge of its communities, keeping alert to emerging needs and relevant issues. This not only informs its grant-making, but gives donors additional insight and information, enhancing their individual power to make a difference. Community foundations often convene diverse groups to work together on relevant problem-solving, creating bridges between donors and community-building opportunities for positive change.[vii]
So it is that the mentors of the newly formed Oliver Ranch Foundation are all about diversity. Which is, I would say, the sort of help fine art needs.
Skaff contacted and spoke with Elizabeth Brown, the new President and CEO of the CFSC. He reported to me with victory’s delight and enthusiasm that when he told her about the situation she said, “Oh!” in surprise. That was the best possible response because it meant she was receptive to finding solutions. She then connected him with J Mullineaux, Vice President for Philanthropic Planning and Board member of the recently created Oliver Ranch non-profit corporation. Skaff called me and said he felt it best that I take some time from writing and give a call to tell him what my feelings were on the issues, for as Skaff put it:
The Sonoma Community Foundation and the Oliver Ranch must be educated so the art, as it presently sits, can be fixed and made accessible. Additionally, a Foundation policy must be developed requiring that all organizations receiving grants from the Foundation must assure that their facilities and programs are physically and “programmatically” accessible to everyone, and I think your point of view as an artist will help them to understand why they need to take these measures beyond what the state and federal regulations require. You have a way of making this personal and about feelings.
I contacted Mullineaux mainly out of curiosity. I wondered if something was really going to change or if this was all some posturing, and if I could share some of my own ideas, which I had developed while waiting for information from Skaff. Mullineaux was a fountain of information and willingness. He said so proudly that CFSC is the “why people.” He gets to help find the “why” for inspiring people like Steve Oliver, developing sustainable philanthropic activities to help the whole community. It was clear to me from our lengthy conversation that Mullineaux is incredibly invested in the arts and PWD, having spent time in his life as a dancer and working with people with intellectual disability through volunteerism. Mullineaux himself attended several performances at the Tower, viewing performances that he said were amazing experiences from inside and from the exterior. He also noted that he participated in facilitating Hamilton’s Indigo Blue (the 2007 reinstallment at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, not the original in 1991), which I found an awfully wonderful tidbit of information, since Hamilton’s work was why we were speaking. That just goes to show the interconnectivity of the art world.
When I spoke with Mullineaux , I suggested a proposal that had been on my mind while waiting for Skaff to investigate. I said, “Well what does a creative mind do when the answers don’t come and one is stuck waiting? I cannot help it; I sit and think about what I do know and try to find solutions.” I proposed that Oliver Ranch make access for PWD as a social practice art project, which is to say, as art.
Social practice art is a form of participatory art, which could be thought of as art where the product is not the object(s) (i.e. earthworks) that are made for, or produced by, the project. The art part is the experiences of the public triggered by the facilitation of the project. The intent of such a project would not be a gift of access to the disabled. Rather it would be a gift to the collection and performances of a broader engagement of people in the fine art dialogue. The earthworks respond by their nature to the surrounding natural environments. So the opportunity here is: as an artistic action, turn this on its head. Have the Ranch itself respond to the highest possible variety of bodies that could inhabit the land. That is, rather then tacking on accessible pathways, toilets and other sorts of organizational accessibility measures, utilize earthwork and operational systems that would facilitate a new way for the public to experience the art at the Ranch. Such a creative choice would give the capability to the art to engage a wider range of bodies and do it in a style consistent with the creation of the earthworks currently in place. This would in effect eradicate the danger fine art is in. That is to say, including more people in the experience of the Ranch in turn enriches the experiences of all the visitors. To point to my above metaphor, the project would be the gilded pot, and simultaneously the engagement with an entirely new public would create a rose.
We talked about how the Ranch could be made accessible, and to whom the Tower may never be made experienceable. I think one must understand as new works are built (if any are on the land) that the failing of the Tower is that no PWD were considered as ideal observers and that is a problem of engagement. The Tower is like small black and white photographs: it is stubbornly inaccessible in its form, for say the blind, but I do not absolutely feel this is inherently wrong. However, since it is a performance space and performance is not inherently inaccessible to wheelchair users there is something troubling about the artistic choices that were made. But the Ranch as a whole has the possibility of revision. Mullineaux said as far as the next steps “The Oliver Ranch Foundation will hire a consultant to conduct an assessment of the Ranch.”
This is a good start, but I do not think any ADA compliance plan is good enough in this setting. I agree with Skaff that since there are so many aspects to access where the public is involved, an analysis for just the Ranch’s land and buildings is not enough. We are going to have to work together to think outside of the box. I said to Skaff and Mullineaux “You do not want to look on the head of the dog to find fleas. You turn him on his back and pick at his belly to know what you are in for.” Meaning that as we proceed it will be vital to evaluate during actual performances and events. What is great about the Ranch is the layer upon layer of complexity, but that means an evaluation is not going to be straightforward.
I believe if Steve Oliver’s driving goal of the Ranch is a preservation for fine art earthwork–circumventing the private sector of art dealing, thus giving more power to the artistic practice–that inclusion must be thought of here as not an add on, but a part of that artistic dream. Surely it should not be as an organizational or administrative detail. It needs to be thought of as an artistic choice to engage a wider audience. I have long appreciated collectors not just be cause they support what I do but since at a deep level they have the richest role in art as those choices on what to collect and how to share it (if they do) are artistic choices that work with my end product, my art. That is to say the path is not the end product of such an artistic endeavor but the experiences of a diverse public which Steve would place around his collection to engage with it are, thus nurturing the legacy of the whole collection.
Section 4: Closing
In closing, a lot of people with impairments, disabilities and chronic illnesses know that many places where art is shown or takes place are hopelessly inaccessible. But inaccessibility is also true for people who say “Oh I don’t go anymore, because I don’t do those stairs any more.” Or, “It’s hard on my hearing aids to be in the racket.” And a litany of other difficulties that keep members of our humanity from participating in the reciprocal relationship a public has to the arts that elevates a work of art to fine art and nourishes us all. A conversation about the terminology used to discuss the instances of disability in the arts is needed, but for that conversation to be effective in supporting the evolution of fine art, the conversation must lead back to questions of inclusion. Questions are a two-part deal; they come with answers. I cannot think of any other way to provide such answers than with acts of creativity – pushing the social consciousness through art and design. But with cooperation and creativity I am hopeful that all of this is possible. I am truly hopeful about the measures the Oliver Ranch will take and am honored that I could help in some small way to preserve the Olivers’ legacy.
[i] Elkins, James. What Painting Is: How to Think About Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy. New York: Routledge. 1999. 143.
[ii] I highly recommend reading the FAQ at ttp://www.veniceconnected.com/de/node/6574, to find some answers about general accessibility while visiting the Venice Biennale. It is worth noting the Venice Biennale does not bother to provide such a link on their website and email may be dubious to get any real answers. I recommend finding out what you want to go to and then contacting those curating the pavilions or shows to get the best information.
[iv] Architecture Lab, “ANN HAMILTON TOWER by Ann Hamilton & Jensen Architects”, http://architecturelab.net/2008/05/ann-hamilton-tower-by-ann-hamilton-jensen-architects/, (accessed June 3, 2013).
[v] The artists featuring work at the Oliver Ranch are Terry Allen, Miroslaw Balka, Roger Berry, Ellen Driscoll, Bill Fontana, Kristin Jones/Andrew Ginzel, Andy Goldsworthy, Ann Hamilton, Dennis Leon, Jim Melchert, Bruce Nauman, Martin Puryear, David Rabinowitch/Jim Jennings, Fred Sandback, Richard Serra, Judith Shea, Robert Stackhouse, and Ursula Von Rydingsvard. See website for further information.