by Scott Artley, MRAC Accessibility Program Director
What are the most persistent barriers to accessing arts and culture experiences for people with disabilities? How is art itself an access strategy? Who is already doing access work, and how do we get more people excited about it? How are disability justice and racial equity intertwined?
These are just some of the deep questions emerging in my first month as Accessibility Program Director at MRAC. As an arts organizer in this community, I am grateful to have been able to learn from VSA Minnesota, the state organization for arts and disability, which for decades has been leading our community in asking and answering these questions. Now that VSA Minnesota has sunsetted (closed permanently), I am engaging with these issues in a new way. My charge at MRAC is three-fold:
- Make accessibility improvements to how MRAC operates, from its website to its panel processes;
- Steward a new grant program supporting the inclusion of people with disabilities in the arts in the metro region; and
- Develop resources to grow the capacity of organizations we serve to be accessible to people with disabilities.
Access Starts Within
As we commit to increase disability access with our constituent organizations, we recognize that every organization has room to improve, including us, and embrace the necessity of assessing and addressing MRAC’s own accessibility. We have begun work updating MRAC’s ADA Access Plan, a document that explains the organization’s current accessibility efforts and outlines a plan for how we will expand our efforts to serve constituents of all abilities. Some ideas we’ve been able to execute right away (such as developing a protocol and signage for when we hear that someone involved in a grant panel review has a sensitivity to fragrances). Other issues (like making every restroom fully accessible) will take longer. You can learn about some of this work on our website’s new page devoted to Access.
I am also excited to be working with our Accessibility Advisory Committee, an impressive group of individuals with wide-ranging expertise who are helping guide MRAC as we level up our engagement efforts with the disability community. Next week we will convene to help refine our accessibility policy, make recommendations about developing the new grant program, and conduct an initial audit of MRAC’s facilities, programs, and services.
As the organizations entrusted with continuing VSA Minnesota’s work by taking on its programs, MRAC, Springboard for the Arts, and COMPAS are committed to staying connected through shared professional development opportunities. Next week staff from all three organizations will come together for a workshop called “The Art of Access,” led by Julie Guidry of Upstream Arts, to grow our collective capacity to authentically invite, engage, and include the disability community into our respective organizations.
Closing Out VSA Grants
For the last ten years, MRAC funded the ADA Access Improvement grant program that VSA Minnesota administered. The grant program offered grants to improve arts organizations’ programs, projects, equipment, and/or facilities in ways that have the potential for significant or long-term impact in involving more people with disabilities as participants or patrons in arts programs.
I am taking over as the contact for groups with VSA-funded projects. Final reports will follow VSA’s original process, which is a document form filled out and sent to me directly–the document can be sent to me via email or regular mail, and there won’t be a need to submit anything through the MRAC online grant interface. It is critical that groups with outstanding reports connect with me regarding any questions related to closing out their projects, as an outstanding VSA-funded project final report may affect MRAC eligibility.
Developing New Program Guidelines
VSA Minnesota’s ADA Access Improvement program supported some amazing long-term and short-term projects that made a lasting impact. The program awarded $1,791,495 to 78 organizations for 156 projects. Just like the rest of MRAC’s programs, grants were available only to organizations in the seven-county Twin Cities Metro region. However, a major point of difference from MRAC’s typical eligibility parameters was that organizations with annual budget sizes up to $5 Million were eligible for these grants from VSA.
As MRAC takes on administering the grant program, many people are already curious about how we’ll be doing it, and honestly–we don’t know yet. We see this as a moment to recalibrate and think broadly about how MRAC can best support people with disabilities engaging with the art world (and the art world’s engagement with people with disabilities). So we are embarking on an engagement process this winter to hear from our community about what they need and want from this program. We will be connecting with former applicants and grantees in the VSA program, and with the broader circle of MRAC-eligible groups that maybe hadn’t heard about the opportunity before, to gather feedback and ideas. Most importantly, we will seek the input of the individual artists and patrons with disabilities the program is ultimately meant to support.
The new program guidelines will be available in January 2020 with a March 30th deadline. Part of the new program development process will include deciding how many rounds we will have in a fiscal year, and if/how the focus of each round will shift (for example, capital improvements in the spring and programmatic support in the fall).
Facilitating ADA Planning for Organizations
One thing we do know about the new ADA Accessibility grant program is that a board-approved (or advisory committee-approved) ADA Access Plan will be a required element for organizations planning to apply. The rationale is that you cannot ask for funding to improve accessibility without having done enough holistic planning to know both the barriers people with disabilities face when accessing your work, and why addressing any given barrier is the right priority.
To make sure that organizations are ready to submit their board-approved ADA Access Plans as a part of their applications, we are providing resources for groups to develop these plans in the next few months. We will be providing workshops for organizations to develop their own plan (check out the Access on A Shoestring workshop in December, and DIY ADA Planning workshops held monthly starting in January). We are also training consultants to work with small arts organizations interested in developing or updating their ADA Access Plan. Organizations
will soon have a pool of consultants able to provide professional assistance on ADA Planning projects, with funding to pay for these services available through MRAC’s Management Consulting Fund program.
Reach out to me
I’m only one month in, but I’m already so energized by all the possibility in front of us. I’d love to hear any thoughts and answer any questions–you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org and 651-523-6384.