Last Saturday I got all dressed up and went alone with my Seeing Eye dog Whitney to a play. Tuesday the two of us went to the Art Institute of Chicago for a private guided tour. I’ve been invited to sit on a panel about services and programming that museums, theatres and other cultural institutions can provide for guests who are blind or have low vision, and it’s been so long since I’ve attended an art event with special programming that I thought I oughta brush up.
The play I went to at Merle Ruskin Theatre on Saturday featured an audio tour for people with visual impairments an hour before curtain time, and the Art Institute offers guided tours with “TacTiles” meant to help people who can’t see interpret the artwork. Lucas Livingston, the Assistant Director of Senior Programs at the Art Institute, gave me my one-on-one tour Tuesday. He had his work cut out for him.
At best, I’m ambivalent about these special programs. I credit the institutions for trying. I really do. And some special accommodations–like the advance tour before plays at Steppenwolf — have truly enriched my experience.
But when it comes to static, visual art, none of the special services I’ve tried have been particularly satisfying or enlightening.
My tour at the Art Institute began with four busts in the Elizabeth Morse Touch gallery, each made of bronze and marble from different time periods and locations so I could compare medium and style. The touch gallery was created with blind people in mind (each bust is labeled in both large type and Braille) but anyone can go in there and touch them. The Art Institute web site suggests that through touch, visitors can “discern an artwork’s form, scale, temperature, and texture in ways that sight cannot.” Hands might be good at judging temperature and texture, but my experience Tuesday did not convince me that one can discern form and scale any better with the sense of touch than with sight.
From there, Lucas guided Whitney and me over to a gallery to take in Renoir’s Two Sisters, one of five masterpieces represented by a TacTile — two-dimensional tiles (each one about the size of an Ipad) that represent a painting and include a description of the piece in large font print and Braille. It wasn’t until we got to the Medieval to Modern European Art gallery that Lucas remembered, uh-oh, Two Sisters was gone!
I can’t remember if Lucas said Two Sisters was being cleaned or lent to another museum, but after he got over his initial embarassment, we both had to laugh. I didn’t need the painting there anyways. I stood where it used to hang and felt the textured tile while Lucas described Two Sisters from memory.
We had better luck finding the other paintings represented by TacTiles, but the Two Sisters experience left me wondering. What was the point of going to where the painting was? Maybe to hear what people around you are saying about the art? Tuesday was a slow day, though. We were the only ones at each of the paintings I felt my way through.
Lucas told me that with 3D printing more accessible now, the Art Institute might create 3D printed pieces in addition to the TacTiles. They already have 3D replicas of some of the sculpture in the museum, and when we got to a statue of Buddha, Lucas placed a 3D replica in my hand. I asked, “What’s the antenna coming out of the top of his head?” It was a flame. At another Asian exhibit, everything was behind glass. Lucas placed a small bronze container in my hand, I guessed it was a cup, but it was a bell. “One of our interns here made it,” Lucas said, explaining that the intern worked in bronze and had cast a replica of an antique bell that was behind the glass we were standing in front of.
Adapting visual artwork for the blind, curating special tactile art exhibits, creating 3-D renditions of popular pieces of art. Good people have gone to such great lengths to help visually impaired people enjoy the art, that it can leave me feeling guilty when I don’t. For me, the simple truth is that the sense of touch is nothing like the sense of sight. Touch is too particular. Whether it be a bust I can touch, a TacTile, or a 3-D rendition, I can only touch one tiny bit of the artwork at a time. It’s just not the same as when I could glance at a piece of art. My interpretation is limited to a part of the piece that’s just one fingertip wide.
I lost my sight in my 20s, and one thing that helped me adjust was figuring out what I could still enjoy (I can’t ride my bike anymore, but I still ride a tandem; I don’t enjoy movies much now, but I can go to live theatre, where the emphasis is more on dialogue than special effects) and things I shouldn’t bother with (I can’t see art, so I don’t go to art museums). The Art Institute offers audio art guides for free for visitors who are blind or with low vision and their escorts, but the idea of paying to get into a museum so I can walk around listening to a monologue doesn’t make sense to me.
I don’t speak for all blind people–and because I used to be able to see, my experience is probably substantially different than someone who has been without sight their entire lifetime. I can imagine the experience helping someone who has never been able to see conceptualize, and I was happy to learn that another person who is blind will be on the panel tomorrow to give his own opinions and share his own experiences with art. My guide Lucas Livingston is on the panel, too, along with a woman who worked on accessibility for visitors with disabilities at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum and Lincoln Center before moving to Chicago, and the guy who directs Audience Experience at Chicago’s award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre. The panel is sponsored by the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortiumand it happens tomorrow, April 25, 2014 from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. at Access Living, 115 W Chicago Ave in Chicago. The event is free, but you need to register in advance to participate. See (okay, hear) you there!