People with disabilities are the world’s largest minority, but disabled artists remain underrepresented in European museums. Is that about to change?

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At the opening of this year’s Venice Biennale, Adina Pintilie’s Romanian Pavilion prompted cheers, tears—and a lot of walkouts. But the artist’s You Are Another Me–A Cathedral of the Body isn’t designed to be an easy watch. The installation of her film-based work, which in part explores the inner desires of disabled and neurodiverse people, repeatedly challenges the non-disabled viewer’s point of view: screens are tilted, mirrors and projectors employed to deliberately distort perspectives, forcing the viewer to physically adapt their gaze.

A newly conceived iteration of Pintilie’s installation is scheduled to soon exhibit at Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, Germany. Its creation was supported by the Goethe-Institut Bukarest in Romania and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. It looks set, then, to continue to drive conversations around the way disabled people are included in the museum experience, and how the modern experiences of disabled and neurodiverse people are represented through contemporary art.

Christian Bayerlein, one of the film’s six protagonists and Pintilie’s collaborator for more than a decade, told a small private audience at Venice he hoped the work would challenge viewers’ perceptions about disabled bodies. The 47-year-old actor and activist, who uses a wheelchair and has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), also discussed his sexuality and his relationship to his own body.

Art that brings the experiences of disabled people to the fore remains scarce at European institutions, despite the fact that they are the world’s largest minority (1.3 billion people) and in the UK constitute 22% of the population. But there are signs of disabled and neurodiverse artists beginning to gain recognition in some corners of the art world.

In 2019, the Attenborough Arts Centre at the UK’s University of Leicester held a retrospective of the work of the British painter Lucy Jones, who was born with cerebral palsy and severe dyslexia but lived without a diagnosis for the latter until well into adulthood. Jones has painted expressive landscapes and self-portraits for more than three decades—developing a way of painting on the floor using special tools she has refined. Jones’s self-portraits, which include nudes and semi-nudes, present her disability from her own perspective, while her landscapes incorporate more ruminative ideas about the ways disabled bodies inhabit landscapes.

In London, Autograph, a non-profit arts centre that has represented neurodiverse and disabled artists since the 1980s, held a solo exhibition of Sharif Persaud last year. Persaud, whose work explores his lived experience of autism, is a member of the neurodiverse artist collective Project Art Works, which was shortlisted for the 2021 Turner Prize.

Innovative ways of working

On 28 May, Tate Britain unveiled a new Art Now display by the acclaimed artist Shawanda Corbett (until 4 September), featuring her ceramic works alongside a new short film, exploring, among other themes, her disability. The artist was born without legs and with one arm—like Jones, she has had to devise her own innovative way of working in her chosen medium, throwing clay with one hand.

But projects dealing directly with disability often remain peripheral in programming rather than taking centre stage. “Historically, the representation of disabled people in culture has not only been at the hands of non-disabled creators but similarly serving the narratives of a society structured around ableist imaginaries,” says Elinor Hayes, the creative producer at Shape Arts, a disability-led charitable arts organisation that works to improve access to culture for disabled people. “Disabled people’s challenge of this dynamic has, in more recent decades, been afforded more mainstream platforms. But the pandemic threatens this progress, particularly as we witness all the adjustments made through lockdown quickly disappear despite ongoing threat to disabled lives. It is more important than ever to prioritise access, not only to mediate this risk, but also so that the more equitable futures we were able to imagine don’t simply pass us by.”

In 2021, a major study by On the Move found that 87% of arts venues and festivals in more than 40 countries don’t include disabled people in any part of the process. The preliminary findings, published in the organisation’s Time to Act report, also revealed that 31% of arts organisations do not actively seek new work by disabled artists. As Hayes points out, in the midst of a continuing pandemic—in which museums are grappling with huge financial losses—pledges of inclusivity and accessibility policies are still falling short, with the additional risk of deprioritising the new provisions needed for the clinically vulnerable and immuno-compromised. The arts consultant, broadcaster and disability champion Andrew Miller referred on Twitter to “a two-tier society which risks excluding many CEV/disabled people & mitigations are still needed.”

Representation in public collections, displays and exhibition programming needs to improve, Miller has said. But it also needs to work in tandem with access to the spaces that hold them. Although legislation such as the UK Equality Act of 2010 requires museums to offer accessible services, activists note many museums still lack safe access to all areas or displays, sufficiently spacious display areas, curatorial adjustments to allow comfortable viewing experiences, or proper facilities for a range of disabilities.

The majority of museum exhibitions rely heavily on visual art forms, and present works hung on the wall at the average eye level of non-disabled people. Some museums, such as Tate, offer “touch tours” for visually impaired visitors, but access also depends on the artists themselves—Olafur Eliasson’s Tate Modern exhibition in 2019-20, for example, received widespread criticism for presenting work that could not be made safely accessible.

Jamila Prowse, an artist who advocates for disabled people through her work and writes a column on accessibility for Frieze magazine, says: “Access is something that should be integrated throughout museums and galleries at both public and internal levels—ensuring that access adjustments are considered as an essential part of running, as opposed to an afterthought or add-on”. She continues: “This means looking at working practices and structures that impact audiences, artists and workers alike; questioning who is locked out from participating in museum cultures by practices of overworking and limited pastoral support as much as questions of how accessible the public space is.”

In a recent post, the activist Shani Dhanda framed the issue: “Change is too slow and diversity is still being treated as a niche, and something that all audiences may not like. We are being made to feel we are ‘risky’. That’s an outdated, lazy and biased view. My condition doesn’t disable me, the inaccessibility of the world does.”

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