In 2018, staffers at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio prepared for the arrival of Fireflies on the Water, one of Yayoi Kusama’s famed “Infinity Rooms,” which was en route from the Whitney Museum in New York. The exhibition was guaranteed to be a blockbuster, but one aspect of the piece was arousing concerns for curators at the museum: the ramps and platforms inside the room, which immerse viewers in a kaleidoscopic environment of colored lights and polka dots, were too narrow to meet ADA standards for wheelchair accessibility. The ramps can’t be modified, as the rooms come with detailed instructions from Kusama on assembly and presentation. What was the museum to do?
To figure out the answer, staff went beyond museum walls and contacted the Ability Center of Greater Toledo. To accommodate Kusama’s original design, a ramp was built leading to the chamber’s doorway, which allowed visitors with limited mobility to look inside, but not enter, the space—hardly a perfect solution. But, in an effort to avoid future mistakes such as this one, the staff continued leading discussions with ACT.
Now, the resulting conversations have led to a formal relationship between the museum and the center, and this month, the TMA announced a major partnership with ACT. Through it, there will be a new, full-time role at the institution—a manager of access initiatives. Its goal, the museum has said, is to become the most accessible institution in the U.S.
“As the talk around equity has become more holistic during the past decade, it became clear to me that we needed to bring expertise in-house,” Adam Levine, director of the TMA, told ARTnews. “If you’re always hiring consultants then you’re never actually creating institutional change—a change of the museum culture.”
Together with Tim Harrington, director of the ACT, Levine has developed a plan to create sustainable change in the museum’s community: The manager of access initiatives will spend three years implementing new accessibly practices at the museum, before joining the ACT. As an employee of the ACT, they will share their expertise with organizations throughout Toledo. An endowment from local philanthropists Joe and Judith Conda and their daughter Susan, will fund the position, with additional funds provided by the ACT.
“For a person with disabilities, inclusion means more than just curbsides and wider door,” Harrington said. “It’s about feeling welcome to enjoy the beautiful things life has to offer.”
The TMA won’t be the first institution to have a position such as this one. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, has had an accessibility task force for around a decade comprised of employees with a range of disabilities. Team discussions have a direct impact on architectural and curatorial planning at the museum, and when the museum exhibited Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video The Clock (2010) in 2012, an induction hearing loop, which is activated by hearing aids or cochlear implants, was made available to amplify sound for those in need.
[Read a guide for how to make institutions accessible now.]
Despite recent strives in diversity and inclusion measures, navigating art institutions can be a difficult—if not outright hostile—experience for visitors with physical limitations, hearing or vision disabilities, or cognitive impairments, and recent embarrassing oversights by art spaces have highlighted the need for in-house experts. In 2019, disability activists protested a lack of elevators in the highest portion of Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, a 150-foot-tall sculpture filled with stairs in New York’s Hudson Yards neighborhood. Ultimately, the Vessel reached a deal with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York that required it to add a “one-of-a-kind platform lift mechanism” on the upper levels.
That same year, Tate Modern in London made headlines after Ciara O’Connor, a wheelchair user, described being unable to view Olafur Eliasson’s Spiral View (2002), a mirrored tunnel that requires visitors to climb steps to enter. When O’Connor’s companion inquired with an attendant about a ramp, the attendant said that not having a ramp was “the curator’s choice” and suggested that O’Connor “go around the side.” Tate later apologized to O’Connor but admitted that it could not add a ramp—the work was simply too narrow to be made safe for wheelchair usage.
The TMA’s new move is, in part, done with the hope of avoiding such errors. The manager’s first task will be a complete audit of the museum’s operations, which will provide a sense of the work needed to close the distance between minimum compliance and a deep engagement with accessibility practices.
The manager of access will recommend design elements that ensures equal access, refine visitor services, and hiring more employees with disabilities. Staff with lived experience with disabilities can immensely improve and refine inclusively practices, both Harrington and Levine emphasized.
For now, the objective is to listen to the needs of its visitors. Patience, too, will be needed ahead.
“I’m not sure this work will ever really be done,” Levine said. “There’s a lot of that can be accomplished right now, but if the museum is always generating new content, we will always have a need to think inclusively.”