BY Chris Sharratt in Opinion | 23 AUG 19

Does the Art World Have a Problem with Disabled People?

There is a serious gap in curatorial knowledge when it comes to both showing the work of disabled artists and ensuring accessibility in galleries

BY Chris Sharratt in Opinion | 23 AUG 19

Do the visual arts in the UK have a problem with disability? The recent experience of wheelchair user Ciara O’Connor during her visit to Tate Modern’s current Olafur Eliasson exhibition would seem to suggest so. Appalled by the lack of a simple access ramp in the place of the two steps required to enter Eliasson’s 2002 work Your Spiral View, her eloquently angry Twitter thread on the subject has been retweeted over 2,000 times. It includes a defiant cry for change: ‘I want a fucking ramp. I want elevators. I want wide doorways […] I don’t want to ask permission. I don’t want to be grateful for every reasonable adjustment.’

O’Connor’s tweets attracted an outpouring of comments expressing derision and disbelief at Tate’s inability to deal with O’Connor’s request. Among those adding their voices was the former CEO and current chair of the disability-led organization Shape Arts, Tony Heaton. Tweeting that he used to be on Tate’s access advisory panel, he wrote that, if such a body still exists, it ‘would have demanded access to this work if consulted’. (In a statement sent to frieze, Tate said the advisory panel ‘has evolved into a group of external access advisors whom we consult more frequently on processes and practice than we were able to previously’. It also stated that ‘after a full assessment, unfortunately the work [Your Spiral View] cannot be made safely accessible for wheelchair users’.)

Olafur Eliasson, Your Spiral View, 2002. Courtesy: Tate; Photograph: Anders Sune Berg

Heaton told frieze he was surprised by the incident because he believes that, in general, Tate takes ‘access and inclusion very seriously’. That said, he is scathing in his assessment of the contemporary art world’s approach to the issue and believes that a lot more needs to be done. He cites Jeremy Deller’s recently unveiled Peterloo Massacre memorial – which can currently only be accessed by steps – as another example of how disability is not properly considered, describing the work in Manchester city centre as ‘a travesty’ and ‘poor public design’. Deller has been in conversation with disability activists since his plans for the memorial attracted criticism when first revealed earlier this year; his intention is to adapt the memorial to make it wheelchair accessible. He told frieze that the experience has inevitably changed how he would design such a commission in the future.

Clearly, the view of those working in the disability-led arts is that many more artists and art organizations need a similar change in approach. Jo Verrent, senior producer at Unlimited, a commissioning programme for disabled artists and companies, echoes Heaton’s frustration with art-world attitudes. ‘Personally, I think the visual arts is behind other art forms in relation to both access and the representation of disabled artists,’ she says. ‘Unlimited supports more people working in visual arts than in any other art form but has much less traction in relation to placing the work in front of audiences […] We’ve found curatorial circles particularly hard to break into.’

Caruso St John Architects, Jeremy Deller, Peterloo Memorial, 2019. Courtesy: Caruso St John Architects; photograph: Thom Hetherington

It’s a point the artist and curator Aidan Moesby is keenly aware of. Last year, he chaired the event ‘Interrogating the (In)visibility of Disabled Artists’ at the Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) in Birmingham, where, amongst others, he was joined by disabled artist Sue Austin and curator and writer George Vasey. Says Moesby: ‘When I did my MA in curating at the University of Sunderland a couple of years ago, disability was never mentioned within the context of curating unless I brought it up. How, then, do prospective curators begin to change if they’re not having their awareness increased?’

Small steps are being made to address the gap in curatorial knowledge when it comes to both showing the work of disabled artists and ensuring that accessibility is considered. The disability-led visual arts organization DASH Arts is currently running a GBP£100,000 Arts Council England-funded curator-in-residence programme with three UK galleries, including MAC and Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Aimed at curators who identify as disabled, its first participant is the artist Anna Berry who is now halfway through her year-long residency at MAC. DASH Arts’ artistic director Mike Layward says the aim is to ‘change the culture of the visual arts sector so it becomes more inclusive and accessible’, in part by creating the curators and directors of the future to address a ‘lack of disabled people in positions of influence’.

Olafur Eliasson, Beauty, 1993. Courtesy: Tate Modern, London

Concerning Eliasson’s work, Tate conceded that it had ‘learned a great deal from the issues that have been raised’, although its statement that Your Spiral View ‘does not exist at all in an accessible version’ is, perhaps, most indicative of the scale of the challenge ahead. (As Moesby comments, ‘Disabled people existed 17 years ago, too.’) Verrent, meanwhile, is clear on what needs to change: ‘Ultimately, I think it’s down to people and power. I don’t think there is a sense of urgency around this issue within the visual arts and that, for me, is a problem.’

Main image: Olafur Eliasson, Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger), 2010, installation view, Tate Modern, London. Courtesy: the artist, neugerriemschneider, Berlin and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles; photograph: Anders Sune Berg

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt