Curtains of colorful beads — some elaborate and some simple in design — were hung in March in the windows of the Toledo Museum of Art’s cafe, creating a kaleidoscope of colors that diffracted light.
Despite preceding the entrance to the museum’s galleries, the bead curtain linked the cafe with an interior part of the museum — the Community Gallery, in the west wing of the level.
Both the bead curtain and much of the artwork displayed in the Community Gallery were created as part of the museum’s free ArtReach Program, a venture that began in 2009 as a way to offer art projects that could involve individuals of all ability levels.
“Not everybody who may have a disability is able to come to the museum, so we wanted to go out to them — that’s how the idea of ArtReach was born,” said Jennifer Bandeen, the Community Gallery manager and community outreach coordinator at the museum. “I think we all realized that the museum can be intimidating. If you see the beauty of the façade and you see this big marble building, most people don’t want to come in and they don’t think it’s a place for them. But if you offer it to them in a way that reaches them, then they can know that it’s a fun place to be.”
Ms. Bandeen goes to visit groups or has groups come to the museum, where they engage in making different kinds of artwork, from scratched foam printing to pressed ink printing and other simple kinds of printing processes. The products of their labor are created to be displayed in the Community Gallery.
“What we’re trying to strive for is that they would ... come back to the museum,” Ms. Bandeen said.
Since the ArtReach program started, the focus of the Community Gallery has changed to be more inclusive. The gallery formerly displayed only pieces that were created by local artists.
“I think it’s a logical extension of the gallery,” said Kelly Fritz Garrow, the museum’s director of communications, who previously worked at Sunshine, a community for individuals with developmental disabilities. “There’s the artists’ community, but then there’s the whole rest of the community who aren’t necessarily artists, but they’re part of the community. How do we reach out to them to bring art and get involved with them as well?”
ArtReach is a project-based program.
Each time Ms. Bandeen works with a group of individuals, the artwork that participants create revolves around a specific theme. In anticipation of the Manet exhibit “Portraying Life,” which will open on Oct. 7, groups are working on pieces on the theme of portraiture.
The ArtReach program recently conducted a one-day workshop at the Little Shots Day Camp at Olander Park in Sylvania. The camp, which is held for children 6 to 9, is meant to help children become as independent in their diabetes care as they can possibly be at their age, said Bonnie Heatwole, program director.
Ms. Heatwole said the museum workshop, which had campers drawing pictures of themselves, tracing their portraits, and making ink stamps, was an overwhelmingly positive experience that broke up the everyday schedule.
“I think they were affirmed in their creativity,” Ms. Heatwole said. “They were excited about the possibility of their portraits being on display this fall.”
Although the museum has not conducted any formal studies, Ms. Fritz Garrow said that anecdotally she has observed more individuals with disabilities coming to visit the museum since ArtReach began.
The accessibility to museums that programs such as ArtReach provide for individuals with disabilities, specifically developmental disabilities, has taken place at other institutions across the country.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York also conducts a free program, Create Ability, that concludes with an exhibition similar to those held at the Toledo Museum of Art.
“We provide a safe environment where everyone’s welcome,” said Kirsten Schroeder, the coordinator for community and access programs at the Museum of Modern Art. “We don’t even necessarily know the specifics of some of our participants’ disabilities. Some people say it’s really important that everyday they’re so regimented, labeled, and then they come here and they can do anything, can see themselves in a whole new light.”
Although conducting programs such as ArtReach is not without challenges, Ms. Bandeen maintains that it’s crucial to remember the goal of the program.
“To be in this job, one of the key things I have to remember is to be flexible,” she said. “As an artist and kind of a perfectionist person I’ve had to just let go of that expectation and let them enjoy the art and the experience. It’s not the end product that we’re looking for, it’s the experience.”