Making Art Galleries An Inclusive Sensory Space

CONTENT WARNING: Disability

Art dances with all the senses. A delicious meal that somehow overloads and soothes your senses of smell and taste simultaneously. A piece of music that electrifies your sense of sound, inducing euphoria. Or a swathe of silk, which has an inherent value beyond functionality, revealed by touch.

Gallery art is often thought of as distinctly visual, gaining its impact from the vivacity of colour, the crispness of lines or the interplay of light and shadow. How- ever, this view not only limits access to art for those with sensory impairments, it misunderstands art at its core. I think art is so powerful, because it facilitates a seamless emotional call and response between the artist and the audience. We receive the artist’s message so strongly, because it’s communicated by something primal and unmediated. It’s neurological. Evidence shows that functioning senses can even be heightened in those with sensory impairments, creating profound artistic experiences.

This is recognised by several artists and galleries around the world, including the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). For example, the NGA has sign-interpreted lectures on the exhibitions for the hearing impaired, as well as braille guides for the gallery and the sculpture garden for the vision impaired. What’s more, there are also guided, descriptive tours for the vision impaired, with opportunities to experience the artworks through touch where possible. This allows attendees to interpret the artworks for themselves, thereby developing an intimate connection with the artist’s intention. The NGA also holds monthly ‘Sensory Sundays’, allowing those who may experience sensory overload, such as those on the autism spectrum, to come into the gallery early and experience the artworks in a calm environment.

A few years ago, the ANU held an exhibition called Colour Music which explored ‘synaesthesia’, a condition where your experience of one sense triggers another. Some artists displayed frames of colour connected with different notes based on pitch or intuition, so as to mimic synaesthesia. This was a further celebration of fluid sensory experience.

But Canberran galleries could go even further. Many famous galleries like the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum have permanent tactile exhibitions allowing attendees to touch sculptures that have either been resin-protected or replicated. This increases access, as vision impaired attendees do not have to organise a private tour. The Warhol Museum in Pennsylvania has several 3D printed versions of Andy Warhol’s Artwork. 3D printing has revolutionised accessibility in the art world, allowing people to experience artworks that aren’t naturally conducive to touch. Some artists, such as Roy Nachum, have start- ed embedding braille into their paintings or accentuating their texture, taking advantage of this inherently tactile element of visual art to increase access for the visually impaired. By these means, low vision individuals can develop an almost synaesthetic vocabulary of shade and tone.

Canberra has over 30 art galleries, spanning Indigenous, abstract and traditional art of all media. These galleries should make their exhibitions more accessible, so that everyone in our community can fully appreciate them. Celebrating the different ways in which our bodies can experience art is more not only more inclusive, it opens up a whole new world of fluid and intense pathways for hearing the artists’ secret messages to the soul.