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Quietly Insisting at the Art Museum

by Kathleen Winfield, Fort Collins, Colorado

As a blind person with some residual vision, an artist and an art lover, I was determined not to miss this rare opportunity--an amazing-sounding exhibit at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) of 70 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Curator Timothy J. Standring had spent seven years cajoling European and US art institutions for permission to borrow the priceless paintings. The show, titled "Becoming Van Gogh," would demonstrate his artistic development during his short career.

Online, I purchased a $25 timed ticket which meant that I had to arrive at the museum at a designated time and date. Almost at once, anxiety set in. How would I gain access to the exhibit with a minimum of fuss and condescension? I was worried about museum attitudes because I had visited DAM before. I had been allowed a couple of times to touch sculpture, while a docent supervised, resulting in my feeling more tolerated than welcome.

On the phone, I selected the menu for visitors with disabilities. Stephania in the Education Department blandly assured me that DAM "welcomes all visitors with disabilities." I had specific concerns about the audio tour. Would the painting numbers be in good contrast on the gallery wall? Stephania didn't know. I was anything but reassured when she added that Lisa S., the DAM's "access program coordinator," was leaving the museum.

Before her final day, Lisa left me a long phone message stating that no visitor to the Van Gogh exhibit would be permitted to get closer than two feet from the paintings. Vaguely, she added that maybe the assistance of a docent could be arranged, but she gave no clue as to how this might be done. I wondered unhappily if the ticket was refundable. It was not.

Even without the assurance that I would get the assistance I needed, I decided to take a chance and travel to Denver. While my husband settled at the public library next door with his digital book player, I presented myself, white cane in hand, at the Denver Art Museum Welcome Desk. It was 12:50 PM, 40 minutes before my 1:30 PM ticket time. Although the desk clerk was cordial, I perceived at once that reasonable accommodation was not guaranteed. Luckily for me, the welcome clerk snagged a nearby volunteer and asked her to help me find the exhibit on the second floor. The volunteer, Jane, introduced herself, and we proceeded to the Van Gogh exhibit.

The audio tour employee said things like, "Just push the numbers on the device to get the description," and "ask other visitors to tell you what the painting numbers are." I ignored him. Peeking into the first part of the exhibit, I could tell that it was very dark in there.

I said, "I've been talking to the Education Department for six weeks about getting assistance." A very tall person asked me to sit down on the side of the entrance area. Precious minutes were passing. Jane, my savior, said she would go and inquire what could be done.

I sat there wondering--should I just enter the exhibit and hope for the best? I thought this would surely end in frustration and anger.

Jane returned. She had been given permission (by whom I never learned) to go through the exhibit with me. She had already seen the paintings twice, and proved to be a knowledgeable guide. She helped me select the correct numbers for the audio tour and made good observations--pointing out things I might not have known about, muted spotlights illuminating the artworks in a dramatic manner. I sidled up to the paintings, working my way through the crowd with Jane's discreet assistance, and the help of my everyday pocket magnifier, which was more useful than the binoculars I had brought along.

The early works were surprisingly dark, so I couldn't tell much. The exhibit was arranged to show Van Gogh's progress in becoming the painter the world knows. Included were samples of influences on Van Gogh: Millais for dark colors and farm laborers, Seurat for bright colors, and Japanese art for Van Gogh's flower painting. I learned from the audio tour that Van Gogh liked to portray working class people--laborers, farmers--in his home country of the Netherlands and later in France. As he developed, the paintings became more brightly colored. Especially striking were two large companion portraits of the postman at Arles and his wife and child.

I had a great time, and I was happy with my experience. Here is the problem: Had it not been for the unplanned assistance of Jane, a volunteer stationed near the Welcome Desk, I might have been left to wander the exhibit, asking random strangers to help me with the audio tour. Humiliating! I wasn't asking to touch the paintings; I simply needed a little common-sense assistance to have equal access. I'll go back, continuing to be almost aggressive in demanding my rights.

The DAM is supported by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, a voter-approved portion of sales taxes that funds arts and culture. It is a Title II entity under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The museum actually has braille on the elevators, but I don't think staff truly "gets it." A braille program was available in the Van Gogh exhibit, but my braille skills aren't ready for a contracted document. Moreover, a braille program wouldn't help a blind visitor to access the paintings' numbers on the walls, which are essential to the audio tour.

I urge other blind and visually impaired people to pressure their local museums and galleries or simply go to the exhibits and quietly insist. We have the same right as sighted citizens to enjoy the cultural facilities that we all pay for with taxes.

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