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Anne Teahan reflects on 'Revealing Culture' and differences between American and British thinking about Art & Disability. / 14 July 2010

photo of a display in a room in the institute dedicated to benefactors

A display in the Smithsonian Tourist Centre, Washington DC. Photo by Anne Teahan

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On my last morning in Washington I meet Ellen Dorn, Director of Special exhibitions for the Smithsonian Institution. I will ask her how ‘Revealing Culture’ came about, and gain some understanding of the Smithsonian approach to Arts and Disability. I also hope to get a feel for the American approach to this territory.   How will it compare with Britain?

The Smithsonian covers a huge complex of 19 museums and galleries spanning Art, Culture, Science, American History and much else.  As though all the major museums and galleries in Britain were sited together under one banner.

I meet Ellen Dorn at the entrance to ‘Revealing Culture’, at the Ripley Centre, the Smithonian’s International Gallery. She is warm and welcoming and gives me an hour long interview.

I ask about the Smithsonian’s long-standing relationship with VSA, America’s largest organisation of Arts and Disability. She tells me how this has developed. It started seven years ago when the Smithsonian hosted VSA’s showcase exhibitions of young disabled artists. This has now expanded into an international festival of Disability Arts. 

I ask Ellen about the word ‘special’ in her title, ‘Director of Special Exhibitions’. She explains that ‘special’ has nothing to do with disability. She works across the Smithsonian, and deals with exhibitions which are special in the sense that they don’t match the programmes of other subject specific galleries, such as the Air & Space Museum or the National Portrait Gallery. The Ripley Centre can be more diverse, flexible and international in the work they show and the proposals they accept. She talks with enthusiasm and pleasure about the success of ‘Revealing Culture’, and the richness and range of the artists’ work they have hosted as a result of the partnership with VSA .    

I ask her about the Smithsonian approach to access. Ellen tells me that they have had an Office for Accessibility for the last 25 years, which covers all their galleries and museums. Both the Director and Assistant Director are wheelchair users, as are regular interns. Every building and exhibition is planned and designed according to ADA rules (the Americans with Disabilities Act). This also applies to touring exhibitions. Each venue is vetted and approved in relation to ADA. Accessibility is therefore hard-wired into the practical organisation of the Smithsonian.

The interview prompts many thoughts and questions about the cultural differences between America and Britain. My impression is that Accessibility here is about practical access and making sure it is done really well and applied universally throughout the Smithsonian.

Access is not, however, described in terms of disability rights. The ‘Revealing Culture’ catalogue is scholarly, and beautifully written by curator Leanne Mella.   The exhibition website, presentation and audio descriptions are excellent. But on Disability and access, the catalogue is cautiously respectful, with a section on how not to offend people with disabilities by use of inappropriate terminology.

On a thoroughly Disability-led British forum such as DAO, this might attract a satirical response or a Crippen cartoon. I can't imagine a Shape exhibition catalogue with an instructional approach to language. But are Shape exhibitions mostly seen by a disabled and disability-aware audience?  - This VSA exhibition occupies a mainstream space, so VSA perhaps aims at a broader, and potentially less aware audience.

But the relationship between VSA and the Smithsonian is a very fruitful one. The Smithsonian sits at the apex of American cultural life, and this is surely a declaration that the artists they showcase should not be considered marginalised  or outside the flow of contemporary creativity and thought. Furthermore the exhibition is architect designed by award winning Michael Graves (himself a wheelchair user) and one of the four eminent curators includes a Smithsonian Gallery curator.

And VSA have managed, through philanthropy as well as federal funding to co-host an international festival of disability arts within the Kennedy Centre and a Smithsonian Gallery. A British equivalent, might be a festival shared by both the Tate and the Barbican Hall simultaneously.

I suppose many things boil down to money – and here in Washington DC there’s evidence of another huge cultural difference. After the interview, I visit the Smithsonian tourist centre. Set apart from the maps and souvenirs and miniature model of the Smithsonian buildings, are two dedicated spaces, like little side-chapels, where the names of donors – either wealthy individuals, or huge multi-nationals like Shell or Apple, are engraved on glass panels, framed in rows and columns. The wealthy are happy to be immortalised as ‘Distinguished Benefactors’.

In Britain, the wealthy don't seem to be lining up to be associated with culture and philanthropy, in such large numbers. British sponsors appear to be either a footnote next to the Arts Council logo, or they get top billing above the art.

Rupert Murdoch sponsoring Oxford University, caused outrage. And of course there’s the ‘BP Portrait Award’ which now has associations with oil leaks. Perhaps if they were just one among many names, it might reduce the contamination.  

But there's an uncomfortable connection between charity and disability history in Britain, which might leak into the idea of philanthropy. At least Arts Council  money is public and therefore collectively everyone's – but there doesn't seem to be quite enough of it.