Interview: Creating Engaging Accessibility Programs With Sandy Guttman

A fair-skinned hand holds a small tactile replica of Yayoi Kusama’s painting Infinity Nets Yellow. The small square-shaped painting is bright yellow with a black background, and is five inches by five inches in size, with yellow paint that is applied over the black paint in a swirling repetitive net pattern, fanning out from the corner of the canvas similar to a spiderweb. The large painting, in the background is also bright yellow with a black background, and measures at about eight feet by ten feet. The small painting is meant to be touch by visitors while discussing Kusama’s painting methods. All images and verbal descriptions provided by Sandy Guttman.

This month we talked with Sandy Guttman, Curatorial Assistant at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. about her role in bringing accessibility-based programs to the museum. In addition to co-founding the museum’s Accessibility Task Force, Sandy also spearheaded the implementation of verbal description and American Sign Language tours, produces transcripts for time-based media, and collaborates with ArtLab+ to create 3D tactiles for touch tour experiences. You can learn more about Guttman, her role at the Hirshhorn, and the reason she uses verbal descriptions on Instagram in our new interview below.

Exhibitions on the Cusp: What are the most common accessibility programs present in large museums/institutions?

Sandy Guttman: Accessible tours tend to be fairly common in large museums. These tours utilize multiple forms of communication, which might include American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, touch tours, and verbal description tours for visitors with vision impairment. While some institutions have incredible robust programming, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, each museum is different based on their visitor base, funding, and their educational programs. It really varies from museum to museum.

Other initiatives also include programs like the Smithsonian’s Morning at the Museum, which is designed for visitors with cognitive or sensory processing disabilities, and invites visitors to experience the museum before it opens, while also providing hands-on activities, and a quiet space to take a break from the exhibition. In order to prepare for the visit, a social narrative is shared with program participants, which details what the building is like, what they might experience when they get here, and some of the objects they may encounter.

Which accessibility programs do you hope to be common in museums in the near future?

This isn’t a program per se, but the implementation of captioning and transcriptions for time-based media and artworks that have sound is a growing interest in the field of contemporary art. With many art museums collecting and exhibiting works that include sound, there is the question of how the work may be made accessible to Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, as well as those who might not understand the language spoken in the artwork. The production of transcripts for these works is one way to make them accessible, though it is not a common practice in all museums.

Storytime at the Hirshhorn Museum inside of the Mark Bradford work “Pickett’s Charge” this morning – with American Sign Language interpretation. This is just one of the accessible programs we’ve started in the last year, and seeing these young visitors engaging with the work fills me with such joy. Bravo to our team of educators! [Image description: A crowd of children and adults gather in a museum gallery looking at a person reading from a book for Storytime. A woman in a blue shirt stands next to a woman leading Storytime, interpreting the story in American Sign Language. The walls in the gallery are covered from floor to ceiling in an abstract work made up of torn paper and colored paint. The work is by the artist Mark Bradford and is titled “Pickett’s Charge.”]

What is a program you are working to implement or hope to implement in the near future at the Hirshhorn?

We were recently awarded a grant to research and develop an app that will take a transcript and caption the video or sound-work in real time. Similar to captioning you would see on television or lyrics on a karaoke screen, this app would deliver the transcript onto a mobile device timed perfectly with the artwork! The idea for this stemmed from an issue – how do we make our transcripts available and easier to use? There had previously been suggestions to caption video works, but adding a caption to a video changes the aesthetic and tampers with the integrity of the artwork. The proposed app would put the accommodation into the palm of the user’s hand, seamlessly syncing the captions with the artwork. No muss, no fuss.

Another similar program we are trying to pull together is a tour of our time-based media exhibition The Message given in American Sign Language. Two of the works in the exhibition have powerful poetic and musical components that simply wouldn’t translate well in a transcript. We are looking into having the works live-signed in ASL, in a way that is demonstrative of the power of the music in the background – similar to the sign language interpreters at concerts and festivals. Following the sign language interpretation of the work will be an educational discussion in both spoken and signed language.

What does the future of museum-based accessibility programs look like?

At a holistic level, museum accessibility will be rooted in inclusion, and will be built into the foundation of the museum – from the curatorial projects, to exhibition design, public programs, and community engagement. A key to the success of some of the programs we’ve implemented at the Hirshhorn Museum in the last year is the creation of our Accessibility Task Force, which includes members from departments across the museum: Curatorial, Exhibits, Public Engagement, Conservation, Photography, and Communications. Our bi-weekly gathering is where we brainstorm programs we would like to see happen, reflect upon programs we’ve completed, plotting our moves for the future – dreaming big and small.

Once a museum has the infrastructure in place to support programs, including accessible exhibition design, accommodations like transcripts and verbal description on audio guides, and staff devoted to improving and maintaining a standard of inclusion, the sky is really the limit.

Nine museum tactiles of various shapes and colors are placed on white table. In the upper left corner of the table are three small replicas of Yayoi Kusama’s sculpture titled Pumpkin. They are black and a translucent yellow color, with raised and inverted bumps that indicate the polka-dotted pattern of the pumpkin sculpture. Below the pumpkin tactiles are two replicas of Kusama’s Infinity Nets Yellow painting, comprised of black painted backgrounds with yellow net patterns painted over them. The painting on the bottom left is small and square shaped, the painting on the right is larger and rectangular in shape. The tactiles on the right side of the table are soft and phallic, made of red and white patterned cotton stuffed with cotton filling. There are four soft tactiles in total, and they are each about the size of a banana.

Can you describe the ways that you give tours of the museum’s exhibitions? How do you view your roll as an interpreter?

My role as an interpreter varies from tour-to-tour. At the Hirshhorn, we’ve devised several verbal description tours for exhibitions and our sculpture garden. Each tour starts with a description of the building, with a moment to touch some of the furniture and architecture in the lobby, which also serves to orient our visitors in the space and give a little bit of background on the museum’s history. Once we’re in the galleries, the tour is very similar to the standard tours we give, about 45 minutes long, often with a guiding theme. What is different about this tour, is that we give a brief description of the work before we discuss it, so that our visitors have some of the visual gaps filled for them. This practice is great as an educator and as a sighted visitor because it invites close and slow looking. In addition to describing the work, we often have tactiles – items a visitor may touch. For Janine Antoni’s work Lick and Lather (1993), we pass around chocolate and soap for visitors to smell and touch, since the sculptures are made of the same materials. For other works, we make replicas either by hand or using our 3D printer. Beyond verbal description of the work, I also like to describe the other work in the room and the way the space is lit to give the visitor a better sense of how the room was curated and what happens when works are placed in conversation with one another. As an interpreter, it is my job to provide our visitors with the tools they need to be an active participant in their own museum experience.

Todd, Félix, and a portrait of Ross. [Image description: A man wearing all black with white shoes and a white tote bag bends down in front of a large pile of colorful metallic wrapped candy, placed on the wooden floor of a white walled exhibition space. The candy is a sculpture titled “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” from 1991.]

Can you talk a bit about why you have chosen to integrate image captions on your Instagram and why others should adopt this same methodology?

Instagram is my favorite social media tool. After conducting research on verbal description, I grappled with how inaccessible it is as an app – that it is image based, but there is no mechanism for describing images. A few of my friends who are disability rights activists started writing verbal description for their photographs and I found the gesture to be both critical and powerful. Writing verbal description is such a beautiful practice. It forces me to think about the image, what I believe to be important about it, and what information I want to communicate. It’s sort of like composing a poem to go along with your image, offering a meditative pause for me and an accommodation for some of my followers.

Interview: FICTILIS on Curating Outside of the Traditional Institution

Museum of Capitalism Exterior Sign

Banner announces the Museum of Capitalism’s entrance on the waterfront side of the building in Oakland’s Jack London district

For our Curatorial Stories edition, we reached out to two previous awardees to speak about the process behind their Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation exhibition and how it connects to their wider curatorial practice. For our first interview, we spoke with FICITILIS, a project-based duo focused on interdisciplinary research that often unites social and environmental activism.

FICTILIS talked with us about how they organize curatorial projects outside of the traditional institution, and why they often choose to develop their own. We also explored the concepts that prompted their 2017 exhibition Museum of Capitalism, and how the pair plans on continuing its momentum as an established institution without a permanent location. You can read our interview, and view selected documentation from the Oakland-based exhibition, in the piece below.

Detail of Futurefarmers installation

Detail of Futurefarmer’s installation “For Want of a Nail” at the Museum of Capitalism

Jennifer Dalton's

Jennifer Dalton’s “Ask Not for whom the Art is Intended” at the Museum of Capitalism

Jordan Bennett's

Jordan Bennett’s “Artifact Bags” at the Museum of Capitalism

Exhibitions on the Cusp: What do you view as a few of the key drawbacks of housing an exhibition inside of an institution? How does your collaborative practice attempt to work against these drawbacks? Why does FICTILIS tend to develop its own institutions for your projects?

FICTILIS: We’re not sure it’s possible to work completely “outside” of institutions, whether they’re art institutions, markets, or capitalism itself. Though the Oakland exhibition may have appeared at some remove from traditional institutional sites, it is still thoroughly shaped by them. One of our strategies has been to put the drawbacks you refer to on display, as it were, as part of the work, reminders that it is still unfinished. We tend to think of institutions as inherently limiting, but well-designed institutions can also create new possibilities. Just as the solution to a bad economy is not no economy—no labor, no exchange, no enterprise, etc.—but rather a good economy, The question becomes: What is an institution for? What (else) can an institution do?

There is a rich history of artists working in and through institutions to offer “critique.” We’re inspired by contemporary projects like Not An Alternative’s Natural History Museum that are doing more collaborative work within and across institutions to effect an institutional “liberation” that goes beyond symbolic oppositional gestures. We think of our own work as a kind of institutional production, along the lines of Cornelius Castoriadis’s ideas about how society is always in a process of instituting, or Gerald Raunig’s recent writing on the “instituent practice” of art. But we’re still feeling our way through this process.

Of course, there are practical reasons for avoiding certain existing institutions, which may have prohibitive entrance fees or may simply feel inaccessible because of their location or assumed audience—who belongs and who doesn’t. While not totally avoiding these issues, our attempt to develop our own institutional identity and site the Museum of Capitalism exhibition in a space not already ‘marked’ by other (art) institutions was an attempt to reach broader audiences, whether as visitors to the physical exhibition or simply as consumers of the news (and propagators of the concept) of a museum historicizing capitalism.

Was the Museum of Capitalism an extension of a previous project? How did it intend to activate communities that exist outside of the traditional art world?

The 2017 exhibition was the first physical full-scale exhibition of a concept we’d been working with for several years. Other manifestations of the Museum of Capitalism included an artifact drive, an architecture competition, a book, and several workshops with artists, anthropologists, and other groups. We think of the larger project as a framework or scaffolding upon which a variety of practices—‘artistic’ or otherwise—can build and grow. This has meant collaborations with archives and archivists, activists, educators, and many ordinary people. Though the framing of the exhibition may seem specific—a potential drawback of working within our own institution!—we try to keep the framework open enough for those who choose to work within it to have some room to explore.

And while the museum functioned as an exhibition, it was also intended as a place for learning, feeling, imagining, meeting, and organizing. And it was used in these ways by many of the over 10,000 people that came through in two months. So in addition to art, what the museum “exhibits” is the need for a better understanding of capitalism and means of processing our emotional attachments to it, as well as the need for creative entryways to civic engagement that might avoid the deadening familiarity of the present.

Our museum doesn’t have the kind of historical distance from its subject that other museums may have, but it also suggests that no historical tragedies have the definitive closure that would allow them to be neatly contained in a museum.

Evan Desmond Yee's

Evan Desmond Yee’s “Amber” and “Core” series, and Kambui Olujimi’s “The Gini Quotation” at the Museum of Capitalism

Why was Oakland an appropriate setting for the exhibition?

To some, Oakland represents the shining star of 21st-century global capitalism. Oakland is also one of the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the US, caught in the middle of the Bay Area tech boom, with a rich history of radical thought and social movements. And it’s the people living in this place, or visiting it, who really complete the exhibition, bringing their histories to the experience of this collection of objects in space, and getting different things out of it. For an exhibition whose perspective has a certain “untimeliness,” memorializing capitalism too soon (as some would argue), there is a corresponding relation to space—to what is considered to be inside and outside the museum’s walls. One of the ways we played with this was by labelling parts of the building and the neighborhood as included artifacts and exhibits. Our museum doesn’t have the kind of historical distance from its subject that other museums may have, but it also suggest that no historical tragedies have the definitive closure that would allow them to be neatly contained in a museum. So rather than grasp for some pure space outside capitalism, the exhibition reveled in the messy contradictions and questions raised by putting a Museum of Capitalism in present-day Oakland.

Oakland also happens to be home to our studio as well as several amazing artists like Sadie Barnette, Carrie Hott (both recent Artadia award recipients!) as well as Gabby Miller, Packard Jennings, Center for Tactical Magic, Kate Haug, Art for a Democratic Society, and others. It was incredibly gratifying for us to share conversations together and witness these artists, coming from different perspectives, engage with the museum concept in a variety of ways. We’re grateful to them for being open to what must have seemed an unusual curatorial invitation, and in the end making the museum a reality through their works.

Will there be future iterations of the Museum of Capitalism? How do you hope to continue the momentum created in the inaugural exhibition?

The Museum of Capitalism is definitely an ongoing project. We see it as the founding of an institution whose beginnings are a bit humbler than historical museums of similar scope. It’s an interesting challenge for us to develop ongoing programming for a museum with no permanent physical location. We created a publication for those unable to visit our physical exhibitions and events. It was published by Inventory Press and contains short speculations we commissioned on the museum concept by various writers and documentation of some of our artifacts and exhibits.  We are currently working on bringing a version of the museum to Boston later this year, then New York, and other cities in the future. We hope to partner with other institutions and communities to realize the potential of the museum as a framework for curatorial and artistic work, but also pedagogical, civic, activist, and so on.

Blake Fall-Conroy's

Blake Fall-Conroy’s “Police Flag” at the Museum of Capitalism


Superflex’s “Bankrupt Banks” hangs over the mezzanine to the first floor in the Museum of Capitalism

Oliver Ressler's

Oliver Ressler’s “Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies” installation, shown for the first time in the US at the Museum of Capitalism

Do you view your collaborative projects as having stronger ties to an art-based or curatorial practice? In which ways does FICTILIS operate as both? Do you each have your own personal practices?

Our projects sit squarely in that gray area between art and curatorial practice. But this isn’t unique to us. The role of the curator has expanded beyond the acquisition of artworks for a collection to include the creation of creative thematic exhibitions and events. And artists are often collectors—of images, experiences, references, objects and materials—to use as inspiration, reference, or as raw material in their work. It seems the line between artist and curator has blurred, and keeps blurring. More and more artists create work that consists in creative display, organization, re-purposing, or re-working of pre-existing content, rather than producing their own “original” works, both as exhibitions and as the work itself. To say nothing of the long history of artist-run spaces and artist-curated exhibitions. So art and curating are not so different to begin with. For us the two are intimately intertwined, and we emphasize one role or the other at any given time based on what’s best for the work. We tend to focus on doing justice to the project without stopping to ask “Am I an artist or a curator right now?” In the case of Museum of Capitalism, we are working with the museum as a form, a practice which has its own rich history. We have separate practices that are more focused on text and sound, but our current priority is collaborative work, which provides outlets for our interests and can often take on a life of its own.

Can you tell us a bit about the origin of FICTILIS? Why did you choose to work under this title rather than your own names?

FICTILIS began as the name of our artist/curatorial studio in Seattle in 2010. We chose the name, which comes from a Latin word for “capable of being changed,” to describe the form of our multimedia, project-based work, as well as the culture it operates in and on. It was pretty apparent to us from the start that collaboration creates things that are not necessarily a straightforward combination of two people’s identities, so it was never a question that we would need a name for this thing that wasn’t us.

What is a unifying theme amongst the several projects you have curated as a team?

We’re constantly trying to explore links between what are considered social and environmental issues and to complicate their all-too-common separation into distinct domains (or what we call “confluency,” with a nod to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality). Other common themes are language, waste, and practices of collecting, display, and exchange. However, as our name suggests, we’re not overly concerned with maintaining the kind of consistency that might make our output more legible as a body of work. We’d rather stay flexible and adapt to circumstances.

(Images by Brea    McAnally  courtesy the Museum of Capitalism.)

Reader Poll: How can we support curators with technology?

Calling all curators! We’re wondering what you need to better incorporate technology within your practice.

Please take a moment to share your thoughts.

Artists, Curators Gather for Content Focus Group

On October 24, 2017 the Exhibitions on the Cusp team hosted a content focus group at Hunter College in New York City. Artists, curators, and arts industry professionals were invited to hear more about the publication and share what they’d like to read from a contemporary art publication.

photo: Whitney Browne

What resulted was a lively discussion on issues shaping contemporary art and we were thrilled to collect a plethora of responses that will inform our content strategy for the year. The results were compiled into a Google Doc, which you are welcome to comment on.

Read the Results

The focus group was moderated by Julia Kaganskiy, director of NEW INC, the New Museum’s incubator for art, technology, and design.

photo: Whitney Browne

Julia lead us through three group exercises where attendees shared what perspectives they feel are missing from contemporary art writing, discussed ways of sharing content online, and voted on their favorite topics for future issues of Exhibitions on the Cusp.

Many thanks to everyone that attended the content focus group!

photo: Whitney Browne