The Art of Disability Culture — Working Towards Access and Inclusion at the Palo Alto Art Center

SV CREATES’ The Business of Arts and Culture provided an important reminder about the cultural diversity of our community, the unique organizational ecosystem that has built upon it, and continued urgency for social justice, access, and equity in our work. At the Palo Alto Art Center’s recent staff retreat this summer, we used the Museums & Race Report Card tool to assess our progress in supporting equity in governance, funding, representation, responsiveness, resources, and transparency. On average, staff gave us a “C” grade, identifying some gains in the area of representation in programming and transparency, but acknowledging significant work to do in diversifying our staff and in creating a sustainable funding source for equity efforts.

I reflect upon this work as we get ready to launch our fall exhibition, The Art of Disability Culture. As a staff, we have been committed to exploring the “A” for “access” and the “I” for inclusion in our ongoing DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusivity) work. We saw this exhibition as a chance for us to enhance our organizational capacity for access and inclusion, while bringing creative perspectives from the disability community to the public.

The exhibition will feature the work of 20 artists, all of whom identify as having a disability, in a broad range of media. The show celebrates intersectionality and community, showcasing everything from Anthony Tusler’s documentary photography of the 26-day occupation of the San Francisco Federal Building in 1977 that led to the ADA to the Black Disabled Lives Matter logo designed by Jennifer White-Johnson.

Our goals for the exhibition are lofty:

  • To introduce audiences to and to create opportunities for celebration around the connectivity, ingenuity, resilience, and creativity of the greater Bay Area disability community.
  • To encourage audiences to understand the ways that the creative work by people with disabilities has made a positive contribution to our community and world.
  • To reveal the complexity and diversity of the disability experience.
  • To promote access to the exhibition for diverse audiences through the use of access features like audio description, Braille, large-print labels, captioned videos, seating, and advance access information.

To achieve these goals, we have relied upon institutional partnerships, with organizations such as AbilityPath, Magical Bridge, Ada’s Cafe in Palo Alto, Creative Growth in Oakland, Creativity Explored in San Francisco, and NIAD Art Center in Richmond. Our outstanding guest curator, Fran Osborne, has created extensive labels for the exhibition that will be available in large-print and Braille. Audio visual descriptions for all the artworks will be available by QR code and on our website. Programs for the exhibition, including Friday Night at the Art Center on September 17 and a Community Day Celebration on October 10, will include live captioning and ASL interpretation, thanks to the assistance of the Midpen Media Center.

This show has demanded that we do more than ever before to support access and inclusion. Funding was necessary to support these activities and we are grateful for the generosity of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, California Humanities, Pamela and David Hornik, and Magical Bridge.

I am also mindful that this exhibition has come at a time when our staff is the smallest it’s been in organizational history. The impact of COVID-19 hit the Palo Alto Art Center dramatically, and like many of our colleagues, we are working to rebuild and recover. While the preparations for this show stretched our team, we have found continued inspiration in the work of the artists, who have been so appreciative for the opportunity to show their work in this community and context.

Circling back to the Museums & Race Report Card, I am also reflecting deeply about how we sustain momentum from this exhibition for deeper institutional change — such as sustainable funding to allow us to provide access features for all of our exhibitions moving forward. I am continually reminded that access and inclusion work is a process. We continue to work toward it, striving to make progress toward a future that we hope to shape, but that remains in many ways uncertain.

Originally published at on September 22, 2021.

Palo Alto Art Center

Images in order of appearance:

Katherine Sherwood. “After Ingres.” 2014. Acrylic and mixed media on recycled linen. 84 x 105 in.

Second- Michaela Oteri, “Self Portrait”, digital print, 26 x 38 in.

Use by permission from Palo Alto Art Center