Letter: The Tragedy of the Art Crawl

In early September, I had the pleasure of taking part in These are Horizon Days’ pop-up piece The Clarity of Brightness. Arranged to the poetry of P.J. Thomas and directed by Wes Ryan, the production featured a cast of performers who live with disabilities, seeking to bring a voice to those who are underrepresented and marginalized within the arts.

It was exciting to learn that our piece was to be included as one of the attractions in September’s First Friday Art Crawl, as this allowed us to bring the piece to a wider audience. However, the excitement I felt slowly dwindled as the irony of the situation dawned on me.

Many of my castmates were unable to access parts of the Art Crawl themselves.

Art matters. It’s an expression of our society, of our norms and values; the powerful and the powerless. Art is inherently political. It gives voice to those with little social standing. It enables us to challenge oppressive power structures. Thus, it is vital that art to be accessible to all people.

The First Friday Art Crawl showcases the talents of local artists and businesses. It is established on the premise of artists opening their doors to the public, which makes the Art Crawl a unique experience in that it’s free for all to come and go as they please — provided one can access it.

Several studios are inaccessible for people with disabilities, as these reside in buildings for which access to the studios requires climbing several flights of stairs. The Commerce Building is a recurring feature in the Art Crawl, containing several prominent galleries, but viewing the artists’ work demands ascending twenty-three steps to get to the second floor, with another twenty-six steps to reach the third. No elevator. The building is entirely inaccessible for those living with physical and mobile disabilities (or requires grueling efforts to access).

“I’ve never been,” says Patrick Gregory, a musician who lives with the neurological condition Adrenomyeloneuropathy, which impacts his physical mobility. “I would like to go.”

While I have a physical disability, I am privileged in having a body which allows me to walk long distances and climb up and down stairs. I can access these spaces and appreciate the artists’ incredible work, absorbing the vibrant colours, the gentle brushstrokes, the bold patterning, the resonating photographs…

I know many who cannot say the same.

“My friends and I were hanging out at The Sapphire Room, and they mentioned they were all going to the Art Crawl and invited me to come along, but I knew it would be difficult to engage in a lot of it due to the stairs,” Patrick recalls. “As they proceeded to go to the first one [the Commerce Building] I thought to myself ‘well, I guess I could wait outside’ as they went to each inaccessible venue. That seemed silly, so I decided to just go home.” He shrugs.

Art matters. It’s an expression of our society, of our norms and values; the powerful and the powerless. Art is inherently political. It gives voice to those with little social standing. It enables us to challenge oppressive power structures. Thus, it is vital that art to be accessible to all people.

“I thought to myself ‘well, I guess I could wait outside’ as they went to each inaccessible venue. That seemed silly, so I decided to just go home.”

However, it isn’t.

The blame for this cannot be placed on the event organizers or the artists. Having limited funds and few options, these hardworking individuals are putting in their time to do as much as they can with tied hands. Indubitably, those contributing to the Art Crawl would love nothing more than to open their doors to more people and expand their audience.

“It saddens me that I had to put my art in an inaccessible gallery,” says Paul Oldham, a local artist whose pieces were featured at ACME Art and Sailboat Company as part of November’s First Friday Art Crawl. “I wish it was possible for all of us to share our art.”

Ultimately, the tragedy of the Art Crawl is that it is indicative of larger structural inequalities relegating people with disabilities to the margins of society. Reduced to mere afterthoughts, these slights are often met with a shrug. After all, people with disabilities can access most places. Isn’t that enough?

No.

This is an issue which persists far beyond the Art Crawl. Numerous buildings in the downtown area are inaccessible. Simple experiences, like going to restaurants, having a few drinks at the bar, and seeing live bands can be strenuous and frustrating due to structural barriers. Staircases, but no elevators. Steps and no ramp. These are not anomalies.

Currently, the city lacks the funds to allocate towards structural accommodations, as no designated funding is in place for the purpose of upgrading accessibility for commercial properties. Furthermore, owners of existing buildings are under no obligations to implement basic accessible features, like ramps, because no legislation exists requiring them to do so. For owners wishing to make their buildings more accessible, their options are either to write an application for federal grants (the Enabling Accessibility Fund) or pay out of their own expenses. With structural reconstructions costing thousands of dollars, many owners choose to leave their buildings inaccessible. Thus, these barriers result in people with disabilities being further marginalized within social contexts, such as in art events.

It’s not fair. It’s not okay. We shouldn’t be settling with “well, they can access most places.” That’s not good enough. We can do more, and we should be doing more.

Artists can prioritize making their stages and platforms accessible for all bodies… perhaps we can work to bring artistic pieces down to audiences, rather than audiences climbing up.

So, what can we do?

It’s hard to dismantle oppressive power structures overnight (I find). Until municipal funding is established towards reconstructing buildings to be accessible for all bodies, there are no simple long-term solutions to rectify structural barriers.

However, this city is special in that it’s full of so many compassionate, thoughtful, hardworking people who strive to make a difference through their work. If we wait for municipal funding enacting structural changes to ensure absolute accessibility, we could be waiting for a very long time. Therefore, I believe there are small steps we can do ourselves to try to reach greater accessibility.

Artists can prioritize making their stages and platforms accessible for all bodies. Truly, there’s no reason one’s stage shouldn’t be accessible for everyone! Stages can be invented out of outdoor parks, alleyways, gardens, sidewalks, the first floor of buildings, etc. It’s truly the ultimate form of creativity — provided one is sufficiently imaginative. Next year, when the weather’s warmed up, perhaps we can work to bring artistic pieces down to audiences, rather than audiences climbing up.

If accessible spaces cannot be achieved, see to it that accommodations are made for people who can’t stand for long periods of time or those who cannot manage stairs. Work to challenge in/visible barriers which could be discouraging people with disabilities from full participation in the arts.

We can also strive to think critically when entering places. Are there elevators? Is there a ramp? Would someone who requires a walker be able to navigate this building with ease? Whose interests are being met here? Whose needs are we not seeing represented? Thinking of potential barriers brings us closer to strategizing and implementing solutions.

Most importantly, we can remember that the voices of people with disabilities, conditions, and impairments matter. Talk to individuals who have faced marginalizing and stigmatizing experiences. We are diverse and come in abundance. Listen to their stories. Hear their opinions. See what you can do to help, if there’s anything that can be done.

Art matters, and it is most powerful when it can be shared by all. Let’s make it so.

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Jessica Lynn Scott

Jessica Lynn Scott

Jessica Lynn Scott is an upper-year student at Trent University, pursuing her major in Sociology. A newcomer to Peterborough-Nogojiwanong, her interests include photography, writing, and performance. She strives to make a difference and encompass principles of compassion, justice, and resilience in all that she does. She can be found on Facebook here:  https://www.facebook.com/jessica.l.scott.96