(Art) quickens us from the slackness of routine and enables us to forget ourselves by finding ourselves in the delight of experiencing the world about us in its varied qualities and forms.
By Joe Ferguson
In his preeminent work on aesthetics, the American Pragmatist John Dewey argued that the aesthetic experience was transformative. He asserted that when someone engaged with a work of art, he or she would understand things better and see the world differently. His assertion was based on philosophical argument that only recently has gained the scientific support of neuro- and cognitive scientists.
If art provides a transformative experience, it is imperative that we provide the opportunity for that experience to all members of our society. This is no easy matter given the diverse nature of our communities.
To understand the challenges art institutions face in providing everyone access to meaningful aesthetic experiences, SAiA interviewed Cecile Puretz, the Access and Community Engagement Manager at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.
In our December issue, we feature The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibit New Experiments in Art and Technology—NEAT, which highlights nine artists who examine how digital programming can be a tool for artistic creativity. It revisits the idea started with the 1960s program Experiments in Art and Technology—E.A.T. The exhibit presents an excellent example of some of the unique challenges and opportunities cultural institutions face when dealing with digital/tech art.
Joe Ferguson: Tell us about your role at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Cecile Puretz: My role is to design accessibility programs to ensure that the museum is accessible to the broadest possible range of visitors, particularly those who typically lack access to the arts or who are underserved for a variety of reasons, whether it’s economic, social, cultural, or due to disability.
JF: What would be some examples of one of those programs?
CP: One of our larger initiatives is our creative aging initiative that’s aimed at lowering barriers for seniors to access the museum. The program is a holistic program that focuses on the social aspects of coming to a museum, as well as health and wellness.
For instance, we have a program called Dance for Life where we work with people that have different types of movement challenges, whether it’s caused by Parkinson’s Disease, traumatic brain injury—TBI, or memory loss. We bring in a dance movement specialist who works with seniors, and do a one-hour dance class.
Another creative-aging initiative we created is called the Arts Cafe, designed for individuals with memory loss and their caregivers. It’s been shown that the parts of the brain that control creativity are some of the last areas affected by memory loss.
We’ve also partnered with Axis Dance Company—a physically-integrated dance troupe—providing a platform for them to not only teach classes to young children at the museum, but also to showcase their work.
The Disability Film Festival is another example. We’ve been partnering with Lighthouse for the Blind and the San Francisco State University Longmore Institute on Disability to provide a forum for their work.
JF: Why is this important for art institutions?
CP: It’s a social responsibility of museums to stay relevant and responsive to their communities. Art institutions cannot continue to exist as ivory towers. We’re at 25 years with the American with Disabilities Act—the ADA, but there are many more boundaries that we need to push in terms of how we’re making cultural arts institutions more accessible and inclusive. Anyone who walks through a museum’s doors should be able to fully participate in the art and exhibitions. Neurodiversity is a new term that we’re using to describe the different ways that our neurological patterns can vary—it’s important to talk about disability as being a normal part of our human diversity.
JF: Were there particular challenges for the NEAT exhibit?
CP: One of our core values is to encourage a diversity of perspectives. That is why I think the NEAT exhibit is so interesting. It brings together two different fields that would seem mutually exclusive into dialogue.
One challenge was how we could bridge the generational gap between seniors and technology. This exhibition brings together three different generations of artists exploring art and technology. It was a challenge, but also a fantastic opportunity, because one of the things with memory loss in seniors is that there is not really a right or wrong answer—it’s really about their own associations. We tried to emphasize their connection with a piece of contemporary art. The light, the sound, all the interactive features of the exhibit has this really unique way of stimulating their brain function. It promoted laughter, some seniors were dancing in the exhibit. It was really unexpected and beautiful.
JF: As digital or technology art becomes more represented within art institutions, what are some of the challenges those institutions face, specifically for people with disabilities?
CP: One of the hot topics right now that museums are dealing with is this idea of universal- or human-centered design—the idea that we need to create experiences beyond the architectural or physical aspects of the building that allow for the broadest possible range of users to experience the museum. There are minimum requirements set by the ADA, but there still is a lot of room to grow in terms of how they are mandating museums to put some of those features into place.
JF: Are there things coming down the pipeline that you see as a concern or potentially problematic?
CP: I think art and technology can be a really interesting way to democratize communities. One concern would be to make sure that the larger structural issues of technology—who has access and who doesn’t—are considered by museums.
Another point is that art can really inform technology in a more empathy-based way—they’re not mutually exclusive fields. It’s like art and science. These two fields can come together and create something really powerful to the benefit of society. I think that art provides a really humane form for making technology accessible.
Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103