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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

Chat Session:
John D. Kemp

Tuesday, June 16, 1998 (10:30 - 11:00 AM EDT)

This morning, we are chatting with John D. Kemp, President and CEO of Very Special Arts. Mr. Kemp, what can you tell us about Very Special Arts and about your role in this week's National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities?

Very Special Arts is committed to achieving full access and participation of artists with disabilities to any of the pursuits they desire. We are proud to be represented at this week's conference, which has been very exciting, filled with incredible energy and hope. Today, I keynoted this morning's session regarding careers in the arts, i.e.: jobs, jobs, jobs!

Please tell us some of the highlights from this morning's keynote address.

I spoke about the need for artists with disabilities to become more involved in designing and defining their future. They must become more political, more astute to the programs serving them, and they must be actively engaged in promoting arts access in their own efforts. I talked about disability culture, etc....

How long has VSA been in existence? Is it the recipient of any government assistance, such as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts?

Very Special Arts was founded in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith, the sister of President John F. Kennedy. She is just completing her duty as ambassador to Ireland and will be returning to the U.S. shortly. We receive federal funds to promote access to the arts and we execute this commitment through a network of state organizations.

Has VSA always been supported or has it been the recipient of the same cutbacks that other arts programs have recently faced?

Fortunately, we have been able to maintain our funding by continually demonstrating our relevance and our impact on people we serve to members of Congress.

Does VSA serve all ages of artists?

Yes, if you include all the affiliates of VSA. The national organization develops programs for adoption by affiliates which serves all ages.

Does Very Special Arts support video artists?

Some affiliates do work closely with video artists; however, it is not a widely pursued area of VSA.

Are there particular art forms which are more accessible for certain types of physical challenges?

Given the wide dimensions of assistive technology today, I don't believe we can easily distinguish between degrees of severity of disability or by art form.

What advice would you give to a music educator who has a physically challenged student who wants to join the band or orchestra? Obviously, the type of challenge is important to know and understand, but is there any general advice you can offer?

First, presume inclusion. If you demonstrate commitment that that child will be given the opportunity to participate with all other children - somehow, someway - you will create the expectation and belief that they are rightful members of the band or orchestra. Second, ask the child or his or her parents how could see this child being included in the regular band or orchestra activities.

How do you think the U.S. compares with other countries in supporting artists with disabilities?

My perspective is that we're somewhere in the middle. In some South American and European countries art is a critical part of every person's life. As long as people can create and generate art, their art stands on its own.

Are there parameters which the artistic community can/should define so that disabled artists are supported for the sake of positive encouragement, but at the same time there is an identification of quality and non-quality artwork?

So long as government moneys are used to support artists with disabilities, parameters involving employability and pursuit of vocational interests will be used. We are drawing on limited dollars from government. However, a host of community-based non-profits could and should encourage all forms of creative expression regardless of quality. It is the artists' commitment to pursue excellence that must dictate their personal behavior.

In yesterday's chat with Victoria Lewis, Ms. Lewis mentioned that disabled people who become successful in the arts are often subsequently not viewed as disabled. What do you think she meant by that? Can you think of any artists who are examples of this?

I think she's absolutely correct. I see all too often artists with disabilities who have become successful begin to ignore their past and disassociate themselves from our community.

Is it true that Very Special Arts is considering a name change in the near future? If so, what will be the new name of the organization?

It is quite likely that VSA will change its name this fall. The board of directors has accepted the premise that our current name is outdated, paternalistic, and interferes with the inclusion of artists, especially older artists with disabilities. As far as what the new name will be, I don't know. What name do you want us to use?

How about a name that coincides with the Universal Design concept, such as "Universal Art"?

Very good suggestion - I'll take it with me.

How many people are paid staff at VSA and how many of them are disabled?

Very Special Arts employs 58 staff members - 38% have disabilities. This represents a doubling of the number of PWDs (persons with disabilities) employed by VSA.

How can artists get paid for the paintings if they lose their SSI (Social Security Income)?

You have identified one of the most offensive and onerous public policy issues facing artists with disabilities today. We are currently in discussions with the Social Security Administration regarding the leveling out of sporadic, lump sum arts payments over a reasonable period of time to avoid this very issue.

Very Special Arts has a gallery of visual artwork on Connecticut Avenue here in Washington, DC. Can you tell us what is on exhibit right now at your gallery?

This month, we have one of the most beautiful exhibits of art from our own collection on display. It includes an abstract piece by Charles Cleeson whose work you can see in the background on the Frasier television show. Come on in and check it out or visit our Web site at and navigate to the gallery site.

Can you think of any artwork in places like the Smithsonian which has been created by a visual artist with a disability?

You caught me on a bad memory day. At the office we have a list of very famous visual artists with disabilities whose works are probably in the Smithsonian.

What is your arts specialty? How did you get started in the arts?

My art is managing non-profit organizations. I am a very amateur artist in the making and I have tremendous respect for anyone who can create.

What advice do you have for aspiring artists, both disabled and non-disabled?

Continue to create and be committed to continually improving your art form. Change is the constant driving force.

Mr. Kemp, thank you so much for being with us today!

Thank you for your good questions and keep up the good fight for people with disabilities!

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