For those who cannot see, a radical touch tour at the New York Museum of Modern Art paints the perfect picture.
Words: SHELLEY JONES Illustration: CIARA PHELAN
A man runs his hands over smooth marble, taking in every lump, bump and dent. He soaks up the temperature of cold stone and suddenly feels hyperaware of his body and its presence in space. He moves away and is helped to assume a position. Now he is the
sculpture; knees bent, head turned, arms wrapped around himself in an artful curl.
This sensory experience is happening at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It’s here among some of the greatest works of art – Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, Matisse’s ‘The Dance’ and Rousseau’s ‘The Dream’, to name a few – that museum assistants are helping visually-impaired visitors tear through red tape to touch the masterpieces beyond. Director of the Community, Access and Schools Programs, Francesca Rosenberg explains: “It’s our belief that everybody can benefit from access to works of art and that includes, among others, the blind and partially-sighted. So we want to provide the most inclusive environment possible. Touching art can be a very transformative experience.”
It was to that end that MoMA rolled out its first touch tour in the early seventies – inspired by the success of their art therapy centre for war veterans that opened in 1944. And although most galleries nowadays offer some kind of touch tour, MoMA is still leading the charge. “There are hundreds of works that can be touched,” says Rosenberg about an ever-growing collection. “We ask visitors to wear gloves, for conservation and curatorial
concerns, but they still let through the temperature and texture of these works of art, so visitors can experience them using other senses.” And for those who cannot see, those senses are particularly heightened. In fact, the “educators” at MoMA have learned a thing
or two from their tactile visitors.
“[Blind and partially-sighted people] certainly notice things that other people don’t,” says Rosenberg, “the hand will stop and explore nuances that the eye just glances over.I’ve spent time with blind people on Matisse’s ‘Backs’ and I’m now able to see them in a new way.”
Removing works of art from their pedestals in this way is a democratising force, but not all institutions think that’s a good thing. A related case made headlines in 2011, when a blind sculptor, Felice Tagliaferri, was forbidden to touch Giuseppe Sanmartino’s ‘Cristo Velato’ (Veiled Christ) in Naples. According to Reuters, the artist made his own version, in protest, and toured Italy with it, inviting visitors to get as close as they wanted to. Many blind people from all over Italy made a symbolic visit to Tagliaferri’s facsimile. But why the big fuss? Art Beyond Sight, a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing blind and partially-sighted people closer to art, has a mission statement that helps explain: “Our fundamental belief is that people who are blind or visually impaired must have access to the world’s visual culture if they are to participate fully in their communities and in the world at large. [...] It improves the quality of their lives, and helps them gain skills crucial to their education and employment opportunities.”
MoMA is constantly pushing for more accessibility. In fact, it now includes visual descriptions on its tours, which add another dimension. “Some works that you think will be easy to describe, end up being really hard,” says Rosenberg. “Sensory analogies are good. For example, explaining Jackson Pollock’s ‘One’ as the size of a twin bed, gives a better sense of it than just giving inches or feet, and it’s better to describe something like the colour red as being really intense like a deep cabernet [wine].
If we’re describing a work that’s figurative, we may ask the participant to get into the position of the sculpture or the painting, so they have a sense of the body’s stance and balance.” And that’s the beauty of any work of art; it shows us a different way of looking at life. “For me, the most exciting part is the conversation,” says Rosenberg. “Not just me sharing my knowledge as an expert, but other people sharing their perspectives, informed
by rich life histories.”