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Sara Athans, Director of Programs, UMLAUF Sculpture Garden and Museum

Abstract: Sara Athans discusses the process she has been exploring to create an accessible art experience for patrons who have visual impairment or blindness.

Keywords: art, accessible art, touch tour program, accessibility, Aesthetics of Access, UMLAUF Sculpture Garden, San Antonio Museum of Art, SAMA 

The UMLAUF Sculpture Garden in Austin, TX has the largest collection of touchable bronze sculptures in the state. It provides an incredible opportunity to create programming that takes advantage of our unique collection. This is the context in which we are revamping our touch tour program.

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A close up of a bronze warthog.

I was inspired by Graeae Theatre (https://graeae.org/) in London that pioneered and continues to champion a way of practice and performance called the Aesthetics of Access. This concept is essentially to create art with accessibility constantly in mind. Accessibility is considered along with every other choice in the development of a performance. When a person with a disability attends a performance, they experience a show that was made for them, rather than a show that was adapted for them. 

I used this approach as a jumping off point for revitalizing and launching our touch tours. I wanted to develop a tour program that considered, first and foremost, how it would be experienced by guests who are blind and visually impaired. So, rather than adapting our current tour offerings, I decided to create a new program. Before I developed any part of the program I wanted to have expert advice. I started by reaching out to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI). 

In early January, Scott Baltisberger, TSBVI Outreach VI Specialist and Gretchen Bettes, TSBVI TVI and Fine Arts Instructor, came to the UMLAUF. Members of the UMLAUF’s Program Department led them through our prospective new touch tours. Scott and Gretchen gave us feedback as we went, and it became clear that we had made the right choice to involve them from the beginning! Scott and Gretchen introduced us to foundational concepts in working with people who are blind and visually impaired. We learned about how to best guide someone’s hands as they experience a sculpture, the best group size per docent, and how valuable it is to let the guests experience the art physically before we describe what it is and what it looks like. Scott and Gretchen sent us a “Best Practices” document that will continue to serve as foundational information as we develop this program.

Scott directed us to an existing program on which he had consulted at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA). A few key UMLAUF staff members visited SAMA and participated in one of their accessible tours. It was so exciting and helpful to see the concepts applied in a real-world situation. The drive through heavy traffic on a Friday afternoon also reminded us of the huge value in having an accessible tour available in the heart of Austin. While programs like this can be seen in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, none of Austin’s museums publicly offer anything similar to this...yet. We are hoping to change that.

The UMLAUF is excited to be pioneering this program with support from TSBVI and SAMA. We’re currently in the training and planning process, but we expect that we’ll be able to fully launch this program in the coming months. Stay up to date by signing up for our emails at https://www.umlaufsculpture.org, following us on social media (https://www.facebook.com/UmlaufSculpture), or becoming a Member (https://www.umlaufsculpture.org/membership)!