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PHI Antenne Foundation Making Art Accessible Contemporary Signing Language COVE Rv2
Photo: Marie-Hélène Lemaire

Making Art Accessible: A Case Study with Contemporary Signing: The Language of Art

  • Article
  • PHI Foundation
By  Amanda Beattie

What does it mean to be an accessible cultural institution today? In what ways can contemporary art be accessible to all? These are questions that we are constantly exploring in the Education Department at the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art.

PHI Antenna Foundation Making Art Accessible Contemporary Signing Language of Art IMG1v2
Photo: Marie-Hélène Lemaire

I have worked in museum education since the beginning of my career in institutions like the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), and I have always been interested in the question of accessibility in cultural institutions. At the Guggenheim, I developed art activities related to modern art for children from various backgrounds, where communication depended on a form of charades as we often did not share a common language. At MoMA, I worked on programs for people who have Alzheimer’s disease as well as their caregivers, for people who are Blind or partially sighted, for people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, and for people who are Autistic. At the MMFA, I partnered with the Montreal Alzheimer’s Society to initiate a program for people who have Alzheimer’s disease. Since 2011, I have been happy to call the Education Department at the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art home, where discussions around accessibility are at the forefront of what we do.

The mission of the Education Department at the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art is to make contemporary art accessible to all of our publics. We use the term “accessibility” in its most expansive definition: we strive for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to feel welcome and to know that they have something valuable to share about their experiences in the exhibitions. Our philosophy is based on respect and a dialogical approach to learning—both for the visitor and for our team. We would like to reach out to as wide and diverse a public as possible, and we do so by providing guided visits and art workshops, texts and video capsules about the exhibition called the “Movements” series, and Family Kits—all free of charge.

We also work on numerous collaborations and partnerships with schools and community centers in order to reach out to as wide an audience as possible. We rely on our partners to advise us on how to best work with their groups, and we design projects together that ensure we are meeting our goals in the most effective and efficient way possible. Our goal is always for participants to feel that they are a part of an expanded art community.

PHI Antenna Making Art Accessible Contemporary Signing Languageof Art IMG2
Photo: Marie-Hélène Lemaire

One special project that I have been working on for a couple of years is called Contemporary Signing: the Language of Art. It is a pilot project for people from the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. My desire to work with people from these communities dates back to when I was a child. My mother had a long career with The Montreal Oral School for the Deaf from the 80s until she retired in the 2000s. I would occasionally accompany her to work, and became interested in learning more about D/deaf culture. I had a chance to explore this interest more when I worked in the Education department at MoMA, where I contributed to Interpreting MoMA, a monthly program dedicated to D/deaf adults. The relationships that developed between the participants and the museum workers was really quite beautiful, and I wanted to introduce something like it at the Foundation.

For the Contemporary Signing project, I reached out to a non-profit organization, Seeing Voices Montréal, whose mission is to build connections between D/deaf and hearing people. They were interested in partnering with us immediately, and we have been working in close contact with them to develop the project. We are also collaborating with Deaf artist Pamela Witcher, who has developed an art workshop for our groups inspired by Yayoi Kusama’s work, entitled Share your dot of love. Witcher’s workshop is based on Kusama’s interest in spreading love and peace, the polka dot as a means of connection, and hand gestures, and culminates in an interactive communal artwork. For the Contemporary Signing project, which took place on November 5th, 2022, I led a guided visit of the Yayoi Kusama exhibition in English, with American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, and then Witcher led the art workshop Share your dot of love in ASL, with English interpretation. The event was followed by some celebratory snacks, where people mingled and continued to explore with the art materials from the workshop. We were delighted that of the twenty-six people who signed up for the event, all twenty-six of them attended! There were families with children between the ages of 2 and 12, adults, students, and a really nice mix of people who are D/deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing, but either work with the D/deaf community, or are learning ASL.

PHI Antenne Foundation Making Art Accessible Contemporary Signing Language COVER
Photo: Marie-Hélène Lemaire

As part of our preparation for this project, and also our goal to be more accessible to people from the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, the team at the PHI Foundation has embarked on basic training of ASL, with the intention of following up with classes in Quebec Sign Language as well (LSQ). The team is really excited to be building tools that will allow us to communicate at a basic level with members of the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. Ultimately, our goal in the upcoming years is to work with a D/deaf educator and to offer guided visits in both ASL and LSQ for the general public. Apart from the Contemporary Signing project, Witcher also led her art workshop for the general public, in both ASL (with interpretation to English) and LSQ (with interpretation to French) at an Open House event at the end of November. Both events were sold out, and it was wonderful to see more people benefiting from meeting the artist and following the workshop with her. This is a first step in specifically inviting people from the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing communities to visit the PHI Foundation and participate in our activities in a way that is welcoming and friendly.

It is through projects like Contemporary Signing that we can really learn from members of various communities and work with them to develop educational programming that is exciting, innovative, and relevant to our public. Our intention is to build from this project and develop other ones along the same lines. Thinking about making contemporary art and cultural institutions more accessible to all publics is an important part of our mandate, and actively engaging with various community groups is one way that we have approached this goal. I am excited for what the future holds! We will further discuss different approaches and programming that we have at the PHI Foundation in upcoming articles to continue exploring accessibility in the arts.

The PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art's Mandate

Established in 2007 by Phoebe Greenberg, the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art is a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing impactful contemporary art experiences to the public. Its programming is international in scope, responsive to the local context, and free of charge to reinforce PHI’s commitment to accessibility and inclusion. The Foundation is driven by a desire to break down entrenched perceptions of what contemporary art is and who it is for, with the fundamental belief that art is for us all. The Foundation endeavours to make a home for art, artists and the public we serve, devoted to nurturing convivial exchanges that celebrate art as part of our everyday lives.

Author: Amanda Beattie

​​Amanda Beattie is an Educator and Project Manager at the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, as well as an Art History teacher at Dawson College. Amanda has a Master’s degree in Art History from Concordia University on the topic of the intersections between Art and Nature seen in selected artists’ work from the 1970s to the early 2000s. She has a background in museum education from numerous institutions including the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice, Italy), the Biennale di Venezia, The Museum of Modern Art (New York, USA), and The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. With an approach rooted in respect and discussion-based learning, Amanda is interested in making art accessible to all publics and to empower people in their understanding and appreciation of art. Amanda also works as a consultant, developing pedagogical tools for arts organizations, and as a freelance writer for art magazines and exhibition catalogues.

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