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Despite the assumption that everyone has the same spectator experience, not everyone “sees” artwork in the same way. A new festival coming to Grand Rapids this spring will serve to change perceptions about Disabled artists, opening an opportunity for artists and residents of Grand Rapids to expand their concept about viewer experience and curating inclusive shows. The DisArt Festival is an international disability arts festival investigating and celebrating creativity, disability and identity. Through exhibitions and performances, the festival will increase access to disability art and culture in order to awaken a spirit of equality, inclusion, accessibility and community among those living with disabilities.
Chris Smit, Director of DisArt, explains, “We believe that the creative act can stimulate important, necessary civic conversation and influence cultural change. We encourage all people, disabled or not, to appreciate the complex identities of those around them. DisArt awakens a spirit of ability, equality, social inclusion, physical accessibility, community, and a sense of place for those living with disability.”
"The DisArt Festival is fortunate to have so many individuals, businesses, and organizations willing to get behind an initiative that encourages all of us to reexamine the assumptions we make about one another,” says Jill Vyn, Festival and Program Developer of DisArt. Vyn is a community organizer who has worked for the last five years in Grand Rapids serving Latino and Disability communities. She joined Kendall in 2014 to make community connections within their Arts + Access initiative.
The premiere of the DisArt Festival, held in Grand Rapids from April 10-25, will enliven the city with several expansive disability art exhibitions, a film festival, fashion show, theatrical and dance performances and other learning opportunities. The festival is collectively aimed at uniting and strengthening the community at-large by advocating creativity and conquering prejudice. A major focal point of the DisArt Festival is Art of the Lived Experiment, an exhibition that stimulates the idea that both art and life are in a state of continual change and uncertainty. Co-curated by Amanda Cachia and Aaron Williamson, this exhibition features 35 internationally renowned artists and brings together a range of artworks, including sculpture, video, painting, drawing, photography, ceramics and performances by US and international artists, many showing in the U.S. for the first time.
Art of the Lived Experiment can be viewed from April 10 – July 31 across three venues: the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Fed Galleries at Kendall College of Art and Design and the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The annual Art.Downtown. event, hosted by Avenue for the Arts, will take place on the opening night of DisArt, April 10.
At the encouragement of Mayor Heartwell, the City of Grand Rapids has designated 2015 as the "Year of Arts + Access", an initiative that notably includes the DisArt Festival. To build awareness around the Year of Arts + Access and DisArt Festival, several Art.Downtown. sites will also showcase Disabled artists in accessible locations. Vyn, who has worked closely with Avenue for the Arts to provide a remarkable artistic collaboration, says that the collaboration “will make a difference in building awareness and momentum for the entire festival and Art of the Lived Experiment, specifically, because we will encourage people to consider how to creatively engage a broader audience.
DisArt and Art.Downtown. will strive to make a number of participating locations more accessible as part of the Year of Arts + Access, providing easy wayfinding and maps. In addition, participating Art.Downtown. curators have been encouraged to explore new hanging and lighting techniques that accommodate a vast range of spectator experiences.
“It has been exciting to watch an idea take shape and to see the organic growth that has begun to happen all on its own,” says Vyn.
As in past years, transportation will be provided during Art.Downtown. on April 10, with free trolleys operating around town from 6-11 p.m. In addition, there will be accessible transportation generously provided by Indian Trails Camp, local non-profit organization known for their commitment to enriching the lives of individuals with disabilities. The collaborations that are supported by Art.Downtown. have the potential to bring more attention to DisArt and to the curatorial work for Art of the Lived Experiment.
"Avenue for the Arts exemplifies growth through their willingness to encourage local artists, gallery owners, and curators to celebrate the Disabled artist and to explore ways that they can make their annual Art.Downtown event more accessible to all,” says Vyn.
Kicking off its inaugural year in Grand Rapids during one of the biggest artistic celebrations of the year, DisArt will change perceptions about disability one work of art at a time. In the meantime, take advantage of more Arts + Access opportunities: check out the Avenue for the Arts educational event Break it Down. Make it Better. on February 28, explore the DisArt Festival, read more about the Art of the Lived Experiment exhibition, and help to change perceptions about disability. Citizen participation along with dynamic community partnerships will pave the way for lasting positive change for those living with visible and invisible disabilities in and around Grand Rapids.
The Avenue for the Arts is a neighborhood title for the South Division commercial corridor. We are residential, commercial and nonprofit groups working together in a creative community. We are residents in Heartside, and active participants in shaping change in our neighborhood. In 2005, we chose the Avenue for the Arts as a title to represent our commercial corridor and the projects and events that we create. Because the Avenue is powered by volunteers, guest writers create our Rapidian content. Special thanks to Learning Lab participant Dustin Coon for his contribution to this piece. Dustin is educated in artistry, marketing, technical and creative writing, public and intercultural relations, crisis management, and community sociology, with a BA in Communication.