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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

Concept Papers

Obstacles and Opportunities: Careers in the Visual Arts for People With Disabilities

Jacqueline Ann Clipsham

The field of visual art has more varieties of professions, skilled crafts, and occupations than most of the public is aware of. There are three or four major groups: artists, commercial artists, academics, and technicians. There are many specializations within these groups. Career preparation for each varies considerably. Artists may be self taught, but today most have a professional school or university education of Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) level. Art historians and museum curators must have Ph.D.'s. Commercial artists may need a combination of both art school education and an on-the-job apprenticeship program. Museum lighting experts may have a background in the electrical trade unions, while paper conservators will need training in chemistry. People at the cutting edge of today's computer graphic arts may have been high school drop-outs and hacked their way out of the proverbial garage, or they may have graduated from a prestigious professional art school or university. Our puritanical and utilitarian cultural heritage places many obstacles in the path of anyone seriously interested in a career in the arts, disabled or not, unless it is profit-making.

The development of a visual artist has two major aspects: the nurturing of a unique inner vision and the studio (technical) education necessary to express that vision. This applies to all creative artists, such as the poet, the composer, the writer, or the choreographer, who must struggle alone to transform their vision into the reality that allows it to be communicated to others. This type of artistic work is different from that of the performing or interpretive artist, who uses other artist's work, and usually does her work in conjunction with other people. The nurturing of the inner vision cannot be called "training," which is more appropriately applied to the development of technique, such as drawing technique, bronze casting technique, dance technique, stage lighting technique, etc. It is also different from the education of the academic, the technician, or business person working in the visual arts. The development of the inner vision is slow and subtle with occasional bursts of insight. It is usually accomplished indirectly over time. It is a great help if the developing artist can find a mentor. Her mentor doesn't necessarily have to be a teacher. This person could be an experienced artist, or someone familiar with the visual arts, who will also have the ability to solve access problems such as taking the student to gallery and museum exhibitions. Such a mentor will can introduce her to significant films, books, and ideas.

What are the additional obstacles for a person with a disability, who is very interested in a career in the visual arts?

Before proceeding further, I wish to slay the draconic stereotype of talent arising out of some psychic abyss to compensate for a disability. The myth that artistic talent occurs more often amongst disabled people than their non- disabled peers is untrue. "They must do something with all that suffering!" This feeling on the part of those without a disability is usually expressed in a matronizing or patronizing indiscriminate gush of praise that would not normally occur if disability was not involved. "Their lives are so tragic, they are so fragile; it's wonderful they can do anything at all." Is this not infantilization? Is this not "very special?" Is not this saccharine coating hiding society's assumption that disabled people are incompetent?

In the spirit of "charity begins at home," let us examine the obstacles found at home and school by disabled students who are seriously interested in the visual arts. Art, which was once fun and had been encouraged before high school by parents and teachers, is suddenly greeted by buckets of cold water when it is taken seriously by high school and college students, disabled or not. "It will make you a good hobby when you retire, but you will not be able to support yourself." Many parents and teachers are afraid for their disabled kids, envisioning only lives of utter dependence on charity or the state, if these dreams are encouraged. So they stomp on their dreams. This is done in the name of protecting their disabled kids. At the same time most of these parents and teachers have very little awareness of the range of jobs in the visual arts beside that of artist, teacher, and maybe art historian. To the extent that disabled people have internalized these values, we have, as Pogo said "... met the enemy and he is us." Fortunate is the potential artist with an open minded, knowledgeable support group at home and at school.

Even those who claim to have disabled people's best interests at heart, those who have the economic control, usually the parents, are often not qualified by either instinct or education to identify artistic ability. Artistic potential may manifest itself in many ways. Opposing the status quo, having dyslexia, school failure, rebelliousness, or withdrawal may be masking the possibility to become a serious artist. These behaviors are usually discouraged and given special education labels. "It is bad enough for her to be disabled, drawing unwanted attention to herself," but "she's flinging paint all over the place and won't follow directions! She insists on making these wild pictures of naked people, not nice still lifes as David does. She's making a scene!" Disabled people at any age are supposed to be innocent and naive as well as ignorant of sex. "We'll lose all our funding.!..It's not nice! What will the parents, the school board, say? I'll lose my job!"

A disabled person with a serious interest in the visual arts should take every advantage of the IDEA program (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975) in grade school. However, a mainstream education in high school is essential with whatever supportive services necessary. She needs to be exposed to juried competitions, and she needs to be exposed to criticism of her work. Hopefully, the criticism will be constructive in nature; however it may be severe and sometimes unfair. By exposure to many critiques and competitions, she can develop a self-confidence that does not let temporary failures, occasional rejections, or devastating evaluations from one or two people stop her from creating art. To encourage this independent self- confidence, a familiarity with other artists' struggles can help. The student artist should learn that the loneliness, hard work, and frustration are common experiences of all creative artists. She should read Van Gogh's letters and realize how little he sold during his lifetime. He had an emotional disability, but he had what every artist needs in addition to talent a supportive family member in his brother. Most of the other painters who triumphed over him in salon competition are unknown today. She should read about Goya, who was deaf. She should read about Toulouse- Lautrec, the aristocrat with a severe congenital orthopedic condition. He had money, but more important, he had the emotional support of his mother, artist friends, and other members of the Parisian bohemia. A contemporary model is Chuck Close who has resumed his painting of huge portraits after a devastating blood vessel accident that left him a quadriplegic with limited use of his hands. Interviewed by Charlie Rose on Public Television this spring, Mr. Close said he felt fortunate because before his injury, he had already achieved the kind of artistic and financial success that enabled him to pay for the help now needed in his studio. He had an established dealer and gallery. Equally important, he had the encouragement of his family and friends. There are many good role models for would-be artists, male and female, disabled and non-disabled, to be found in letters and biographies. From his letters it is evident even Mozart had a difficult time as an artist.

As for the goal of excellence in visual arts, there is only one standard--the quality of the work. Time is the ultimate arbiter of great art. Often fashion is mistaken for art. Academies of art and commissars of art have a notoriously bad track record of recognizing the real thing. This is not to say they are always wrong. Talent is necessary, but disciplined work and plain cussed persistence are essential. There are no exceptions for being "very special". This is not to say that the means (such as adaptive equipment) may not be needed for a particular student to learn a particular art or craft. Ordinary eye glasses are adaptive equipment. Other devices could simply be a strap or glove to keep a brush in the hand, a modified potter's wheel, or the latest computer with voice recognition or eye movement programs so a quadriplegic artist can operate it. If some of these devices are not easily improvised or purchased, a program such as TARP, the Technical Assistance Resource Program, is available in each state to help solve such problems. Funding to pay for some of this liberating technology might be found in a wide variety of sources such as the local State Vocational Rehabilitation Division, the foundations of the major computer companies, a search of the Foundation Center's resources (New York City), or their web site, and the other web sites relating to education and disability. If there is no computer at school or at home, the largest public library that is accessible in the community should be used to hunt for this crucial support.

By the middle of the junior year of high school a collection of examples of the student's artwork should have begun, documented with high quality color slides. These slides are the most important part of any visual arts application. Advice and guidelines for taking the slides should be sought from an art school or local museum or gallery. Many professional photographers claim to know how to do this, but do not. The entrance applications to either professional schools of art or colleges and universities with well-developed art departments should be obtained ahead of time in order to know the specific requirements. Other careers in the arts requiring academic degrees will require basic liberal arts college application demands. SAT and College Board exams will most likely be needed. All students should take practice SAT or Board exams. This is especially crucial for students whose disabilities prevent them from taking tests in the usual fashion (i.e., with paper and pencil, marking in little ovals, etc.) If the student needs accommodations, now is the time to find out what those accomodations will need to be. They shouldn't be handled at the actual test time. The Community Resource Training program of United Cerebral Palsy in New Jersey has several options a disabled student could benefit from at this point, but the most helpful one is called "School to Careers". This includes "career exploration, job (school) tours, mock interviews, interviews with people in desired fields, and job shadowing (school support group)".

It is important to ascertain the future school's accessibility, its compliance with 504 and the ADA, and its attitude toward disabled students. If possible, find out its track record in accommodations, by finding recent disabled graduates and talking with them. Even better, make an appointment, visit the school, and meet some of the current students who are disabled. Investigate public and private scholarships, financial aid, use the Internet, and the Foundation Center in New York City. It will not be as easy for a student with a significant visual, mobility, or communication impairment to support her arts education or career with gigs, such as waiting tables, messenger biking, or cab driving, as her non-disabled sister artists do. So a career in the arts is an even tougher scenario for disabled visual art students, since many of the career supporting options open to others will obviously not be open to her, depending on the disability. She must prepare to apply to graduate school to obtain an MFA degree, if she wants to teach to support her life as an artist. College teaching job applications without an MFA will not even be considered. Advanced academic degrees are required in most other positions in colleges, universities, and museums, and often a Ph.D. is required. The College Art Association (CAA) in New York City is the professional organization for artists and other academics and museum staff members. It welcomes student members and holds job placement services at each of its annual conferences. The CAA has information on postgraduate educational institutions in the visual arts and sponsors a few fellowships. Four times a year it publishes a list of jobs in colleges, universities, museums, and galleries. The CAA has a good track record in making its meetings accessible to people with a variety of disabilities.

Fine art restoration and paper conservation are two other career possibilities for people with disabilities. These can be pursued either in museums, universities, and libraries or in the private sector, often associated with the antiques business. A basic college degree in art, or art history maybe required along with chemistry to enter either field which is still dominated by the on-the-job apprenticeship.

In architecture and interior design training, degrees and certification, or state licensing are required. With the passage of the ADA and 504 there are job opportunities for people with disabilities who could be considered to have a head start in this field due to their personal experiences. Most architects in practice today know little about accessibility because it was not previously taught in school. Although the situation is improving, the study of accessibility, or universal design, is still not required for a degree or an architect's license.

An off-shoot of interior design is exhibition design which is not only used in museums and galleries, but also in huge trade shows put on by all the major industries, i.e. the Car Show, the Boat Show, the Computer Show, the Flower Show, etc. Exhibition design could not be realized without lighting design and the framing business.

Another enormous field is industrial design. The Detroit auto industry employs many industrial designers from schools such as the Cleveland Institute of Art. Other industrial design majors find employment in appliance and machinery design ranging from washing machines to can openers. The design of medical and adaptive equipment is another arm of industrial design. Who better to do this work that those of us who use and need this equipment? The woman founder of Quickie Wheelchairs is a paraplegic who became disgusted with and frustrated by the old behemoth chairs made by those who never used them. A few years ago she sold the company for a large profit.

The previous have all been examples of opportunities in industrial, or three dimensional design. Two dimensional design embraces the very large fabric and garment industry, advertising design, and the graphic arts industry which includes typography and photography. All are increasingly dependent on the use of computer technology. The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City is one of the leading educational institutions for professions in the garment and fabric trades. Many disabled people cannot wear clothing "off the rack". Using the computer to design custom clothing for people with disabilities is a new opportunity for a career in fashion arts for a person who can bring some personal experience to the table. The New York City based Graphic Artists' Guild and its Foundation are sources for any student who needs information about preparation and entry into the graphic arts field, including computer graphics. Many of these fields are growing so rapidly that formal educational requirements are not in place. A combination of some art or trade school and some industrial apprenticeship is what is necessary for this type of career.

Careers in film and video straddle the visual arts, the literary arts, and the performing arts. The filmmaker's internal vision guides the making of the story, whether documentary or fiction. Another visual artist who is involved in filmmaking is the cinematographer, who frames the shots from which the film is composed. Preparation for these careers is more and more likely to take place in a university or film school. However, there are many who are still trained and educated on the job. There can be many obstacles for disabled visual artists in film. Equipment may have to be adapted, and shoots in wild or primitive locals may be difficult. Again the computer enters this industry and levels the playing field for people with disabilities with the rapidly growing areas of animation and special effects.

This golden opportunity in the evolution of the computer to liberate many disabled people from the public dole to economic self sufficiency, from despair to self respect, comes at a split in the road separating the haves from the have -nots in our society. Being a "have" used to mean education and money, but now, this also means Internet access and computer literacy, which requires money. This split in the road affects not only to career opportunities in the arts for disabled people, but to opportunities in all careers for all members of our society.

The major obstacle at this same time is the Department of Justice, which has in essence blocked the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, bringing less than a handful of suits. Who amongst disabled people can afford to hire their own lawyers? To those of us who fought in the civil rights movement, this is Brown vs. Board of Education all over again almost fifty years later.

The major opportunity is the computer. Funding for a high-tech computer may be difficult to obtain. The economic barrier to obtaining this type of equipment and skills is probably one of the worst obstacles for people with disabilities, equalled only by society's perception of us as incompetent. Computers, Internet access, and web literacy can no longer be over-stressed. This new form of literacy is the most important tool for disabled people. It significantly levels the playing field, in the visual arts and everywhere else.

Other Papers in this series - "Training Models"

© 1998, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Reproduced by permission.
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means without the written permission of The Kennedy Center.

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