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Come to your senses

Sight is the sense many people associate with "visual" art. But what if you can’t see? The AGO, in partnership with OCADU and the CNIB, is creating innovative ways to make inclusive art for all five senses.

Multi sensory the academy

Image © Art Gallery of Ontario

Art museums like the AGO are leading the charge of inclusiveness, with progressive access strategies for admissions and membership. And while fewer barriers to entry is important, for many art-lovers with low or impaired vision, a gallery full of paintings presents a much larger obstacle. So how can we create models of accessibility that overcome the confines of the medium itself? The Canadian Institute for the Blind (CNIB), Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU) and the AGO have an answer.

Launched in 2010, the AGO’s Multisensory Tour program is set to celebrate a decade of offering visitors the opportunity to explore, touch, hear and smell their way through the art museum. Directed by Melissa Smith, the AGO’s Assistant Curator of Community Programs, these tours feature voice-guided descriptions of works in the AGO Collection as well as interactions with sculptural pieces that can be touched, such as our Rodin statues. Taking a community-driven, participatory approach, the AGO has partnered with the CNIB to receive important stakeholder feedback about this initiative. However, it wasn’t until we connected with our next-door neighbours at OCADU that the program took its most innovative turn.

For the last three years Peter Coppin, Director of Graduate Studies in Inclusive Design at OCADU, along with co-instructor Melissa Smith, has tasked his students with creating 3-D reinterpretations of works at the AGO. Students find a painting that resonates with them, research its background and technical composition and then create a small interactive 3-D model using shapes and materials that capture the painting’s essence. After beta testing with members of the community with low or impaired vision through the CNIB, a number of these dynamic student projects are added as stops on the AGO’s Multisensory Tour. This wonderful innovation has been met with rave reviews by both tour participants and members of the media.   

multi sensory lake and mountains

Image © Art Gallery of Ontario

Our most recent cohort of projects features a captivating reinterpretation of Kent Monkman’s The Academy (pictured at top). In it, miniature wooden art dolls are used to depict the poses of the painting’s many characters, while also being adorned with corresponding clothing or fabric. Another project reinvents Lake and Mountains (pictured above) by Group of Seven member Lawren Harris, using ambient water sounds, cotton batting clouds and bright blue UV lighting.                                        

The tour brings art alive in so many ways. It’s a reminder that art is about so much more than what you can see. It’s also about what it makes you think and feel.

If you or someone you know is blind or partially sighted and interested in booking a tour, contact us for more information. Visitors with sight are welcome too.

Admission to the AGO Collection and all special exhibitions is always free for AGO Members, AGO Annual Pass holders and visitors 25 and under.

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