The exhibition Bodies in Translation: Age and Creativity was organized by MSVU Art Gallery in collaboration with the SSHRC-funded project entitled “Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology and Access to Life” and the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging at Mount Saint Vincent University. I had the honour of serving as co-curator of the exhibition, together with Lindsay Fisher and Dr. Eliza Chandler, who are associated with the Bodies in Translation research team.
Bodies in Translation: Age and Creativity was presented at MSU Art Gallery, Halifax, from 8 September through 12 November 2017. These dates encompassed the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging and the first day of October, the International Day of the Older Person.
Age and Creativity was a novel undertaking for the staff of MSVU Art Gallery. We had previously exhibited the work of older visual artists in solo and group exhibitions, but never with aging as a theme. The project’s stated focus was “on socially engaged creative work by artists who embody difference” and works addressing “various facets of aging, including disability.” As we formulated our invitation to potential contributors, a question hung over our discussions: would artists want to participate?
The curators decided to select the exhibition from a public call for entries, which was issued to artists and artists’ organizations throughout Atlantic Canada. There was no age threshold—we invited entries from professional artists and artisans who identified as “older adults” and whose practices engaged in some way with the topic of aging. The choice of media was completely open. The key selection criteria were aesthetic merit and diversity of perceptual access.
From the twenty-nine entries received, we selected the works of seven artists. I was pleasantly surprised to observe that even this small number incorporated a balance of established and emerging artists, and various demographic categories. For example, both Karen Langlois and MJ Sakurai began their artistic careers later in life. Four of the artists are immigrants. Anna Torma came to New Brunswick from Hungary, Cecil Day and MJ Sakurai moved to Nova Scotia from the U.S., and Michael Fernandes traveled to Montreal from Trinidad, later settling in Nova Scotia. Both Fernandes and Sakurai are persons of colour. Only Onni Nordman and George Steeves are native Maritimers. With the exception of Cecil Day, who disclosed her arthritis, none of the artists claimed a specific disability—but all acknowledged how age had transformed them and their relationships with the people portrayed in their works.
This project also transformed the curatorial approach to public programs at MSVU Art Gallery. Until Age and Creativity, we had never systematically undertaken to make an exhibition accessible to persons with disabilities. The preparations for mounting Age and Creativity convinced us that accessible presentation practices would characterize our public programs for the foreseeable future.
Here is a list of accessible features of the exhibition Bodies in Translation: Age and Creativity (and subsequent exhibitions):
- Specialized gallery attendants trained in disability awareness and verbal description
- Large print wall labels and interpretive guide booklet
- Braille interpretive guide booklets, grades 1 and 2
- Audio-recorded verbal descriptions, in the artists’ voices, on portable players with headphones
- ASL video of the introductory text panel
- ASL interpreters present at public events
- Touchable art
- Touchable printing plates exhibited alongside the framed prints
- Wall-mounted and table-mounted works and texts positioned at wheelchair-accessible height
- Closed-captioned video
- List of accessible facilities in the building posted in the exhibition
- Service animals welcome
Unfortunately we were unable to manage this until after the exhibition closed, but I am pleased to announce that automatic door openers have been installed at three critical entrance points to the gallery.
Ingrid Jenkner, Director
MSVU Art Gallery
The Art Gallery’s journey to greater inclusiveness was launched in fall 2016, when the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging invited MSVU Art Gallery to collaborate in the organization of an exhibition on the subject of aging. At the NSCA I would like to thank Katie Aubrecht, Postdoctoral Fellow; Pamela Fancey, Associate Director; and Janice Keefe, Director, for their collegial support of the exhibition and associated events.
The staff of MSVU Art Gallery also helped to realize many of the accessible supports. David Dahms, Technician, and Traci Steylen, Administrative Assistant, worked tirelessly on this aspect of the exhibition. Claire Dykhuis, Program Coordinator, hired and trained our specialized attendants, oversaw the production of printed matter, and coordinated the collection of visitor feedback. In these efforts all of the staff were guided by our temporary Accessibility Coordinator, Nicole McDonald, who brought considerable life experience and theoretical knowledge of accessibility to her task. Julianne Acker-Verney, a consultant specializing in supports for blind people, helped us to introduce Braille into the exhibition.
The most popular accessible feature of the exhibition was the presence of our gallery attendants, Rachel Cherry, Courtney MacDonald, Robyn MacKinnon, Kelsey McLaughlin and Anna Taylor. By providing an actively inclusive welcome to the exhibition space, these employees have redefined what it means to be a galley attendant at MSVU Art Gallery.
I am especially grateful to the participating artists, who not only contributed their art, but also took the trouble to record audio descriptions according to accessible protocols. Their recordings were the second most popular accessible support, providing an intimate glimpse into their intentions and artistic personae.
Finally, thanks to my co-curators, Eliza Chandler and Lindsay Fisher. As knowledgeable colleagues, they guided the exhibition planning process at every stage, assisted in the mounting of public events, and educated everyone and anyone who needed to learn more about accessible curatorial practices.