“If people with disabilities are on the stage, people with disabilities will be in the audience,” says Craig Dunn, executive director of VSA arts of Minnesota.
And it’s the mission of VSA to encourage the arts to welcome people with disabilities and to encourage people with disabilities to take their place in the arts community.
“Our mission is to increase access and availability,” says Dunn, by working with individual artists, arts organizations and schools—as advocates and through VSA’s arts programs.
What’s In a Name?
VSA used to stand for “very special arts” before the international network of organizations dumped the words in 1995 (at Dunn’s suggestion). Today the organization uses only the initials.
“It was more than a language issue,” says Dunn. “The name reflected a change in how we treated the people we serve. The sponsors and volunteers used to be happy with arts events for kids, but the kids didn’t learn anything.” Dunn says the “special” position kept people with disabilities in a box and separate from the arts community.
Today VSA is working to enable people with disabilities to become part of the arts community of audience and artist rather than being granted a “special” position on either side of the curtain.
As people with disabilities proclaimed on T-shirts during the campaign to change the name, “We’re not special anymore.”
When funding increased in the mid-1990s, Dunn and his group “nudged” the State Arts Board to require that funded arts groups show continual progress in working with persons with disabilities. The move put disabilities in front of every group that applies for funds.
“It’s never perfect, but arts organizations are making progress,” says Dunn. And that progress can be seen in the advancement of artists with disabilities. VSA worked with St. Paul artist Jane Garris to show her work at two international VSA arts festivals. She then received a VSA artist recognition grant and last year had a solo show in Duluth. These were juried programs that placed Garris next to other artists in the arts community.
For galleries that show the work of Garris and others, and for theaters and performance spaces, VSA offers an accessibility screening. This may be a simple walk-through or a more extensive use of an assessment tool developed by the National Endowment for the Arts.
However, meeting ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements for space does not mean an organization can lower the curtain on efforts to integrate people with disabilities. “They need to keep moving,” says Dunn. “They say, ‘We’ve met ADA regs, and people with disabilities are not showing up, so we’re not going to make more efforts.’”
A Role Model
“If arts groups expect to build their audience, they need to see that every event is friendly to disabilities.” Dunn says the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is one example of an arts group that is not just physically welcoming—it offers sight and hearing services for every performance and also markets to people with disabilities.
The Guthrie also loans its audio description equipment to smaller theaters. As it coordinates the equipment loan, VSA can bring its Arts Access training so groups can take action in their hometowns.
Today and Beyond
VSA’s work with schools also reaches hometowns across the state—most recently in Faribault, Royalton, Osseo and Hastings—through its mini-grant program. Eleven schools recently received $500 grants they will use to bring artists into classrooms to involve students with disabilities in the process of creating.
VSA arts of Minnesota has made noticeable progress in engaging artists, audiences, educators and even policy-makers in the mission of integrating people with disabilities into the arts. And, regardless of budget barriers that seem to be everywhere these days, this show will go on.