Visual Descriptions Coming to LUAG

Two years ago, LUAG was approached by Randall Forte, the Executive Director of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, about how art institutions around the country were changing the way visitors accessed art.  LUAG was intrigued. The staff had observed in the galleries that visitor’s experiences could be made more fulfilling with complimentary materials and services to accompany their accessibility needs. LUAG decided to become one of the first art institutions in the Valley to initiate an art accessibility program.

Staff attended a two day seminar hosted by Randall Forte on ADA compliance, as well as accessibility workshops with Mimi Smith, Executive Director of VSA Pennsylvania, Celia Hughes, Executive Director of VSA Texas, and Rita Lang, Manager of Innovative Programs and Volunteers of the Center for Vision Loss. They learned etiquettes such as when to offer help or to offer an arm as a guide instead of guiding a visitor by grasping their arm.

Denise Stangl, LUAG Operations Administrator, has had a big hand in the art accessibility initiative. She has been working at LUAG for 30 years, becoming the master of all things administrative for the galleries – which entails anything from guiding volunteers to crunching numbers to creating contracts.  Denise said that every step taken for accessibility is to make sure that everyone that enters the gallery feels comfortable and has a positive experience.

At the moment LUAG is forging ahead with a new project for the sake of accessibility for the visually impaired. Staff and volunteers are writing audio visual descriptions for several pieces in the “… Of The Americas” exhibition planned to open Fall 2015 in the Lower Gallery. Along with visual descriptions, Lehigh students will design and produce 3D tactile diagrams to correspond with artworks.

Denise relates that the project has opened great opportunities to collaborate with other Lehigh departments and involve students. The Wilber Powerhouse, headed by Brian Slocum, and his students have already started on 3D designs, Lehigh Media Services will record audio for the descriptions.

The Lehigh Valley community has also been involved by funding the project with grants, including the Morning Start Rotary from Bethlehem which will fund the NFC tags, and the LVAC which will fund continued research.

Denise, herself, is writing an audio description. Her artwork is an untitled Belkis Ayón Manso offset lithograph on paper.  LUAG staff, Denise included, has visited several museums with audio description programs, such as the MOMA and the Guggenheim, to observe the process and guidelines of writing a description. Each description is around 300 words and focuses on visual impressions.

When asked why she chose the piece she is describing Denise replied, “It spoke to me.” She emotionally connected with it. It was important to her that she was interested in learning more about the piece as research is a big part of writing the description. “You must set the scene,” she said. Background information can set the mood and portray a feeling of the artwork before delving into visual details.

After setting a background, exact visual facts are described. This, Denise said, was the hardest part for her. She had to constantly remind herself to, “keep myself out of it.” It was natural to want to interpret the piece because for the most part that is how we are taught to approach art. We approach art with a creative outlook and interpretation is encouraged. We are asked “What do you see?” But when writing an audio description the listener is the interpreter. The listener should be provoked to engage with the piece.

The visual descriptions and tactile designs are scheduled to be finished by the end of the summer. Denise says the project is not only for the visually impaired. It is one more resource for any visitor to better understand what they are looking at and peak their curiosity.

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