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Expanding the Circle of Art Engagement: VSA arts of Georgia

By Daniel Boegaard

What is the purpose of the arts? For many centuries, the world's greatest thinkers have pondered this question and rendered contradictory answers. And yet the answer does not seem to matter. Since the times of the Lascaux cave painters, humans have made art. And just as importantly, humans have felt compelled and moved by witnessing art. But for those with disabilities, or who just don't have the extra income that might allow them to take classes or attend performances, access to the arts is often limited. In Atlanta, VSA arts of Georgia works to ensure that everyone in the community can participate fully in the arts, regardless of disability or income.

VSA arts of Georgia

The organization was founded by Don Robinson in 1974 as "Hospital Audiences," and while the purpose was similar, it served mostly to bring exhibits and performances to people who could not get out. Over time, the organization took on a variety of forms, finally becoming VSA arts of Georgia, Inc. in 2000. In the words of VSA's website, the group works, "to fulfill our vision of an inclusive community that encourages everyone to enjoy and participate in the arts."

Today, VSA arts of Georgia has a long history of successes to bolster its push into the future. Its focus is on ensuring that everyone has access to outstanding art exhibitions and performances, regardless of the fortunes of their body or their class. "Too often," says Executive Director Elizabeth Labbe-Webb, "even with the best of intentions, people who are different in some way are set aside or given 'special' experiences that set them away from their communities and families."

VSA arts of Georgia

VSA seeks not only to ensure that high quality arts performances are accessible to all people, but also that all people have access to create art themselves and engage an audience of the public. "We work both sides of the equation," says Labbe-Webb, "giving our constituents the tools they need to be patrons and arts practitioners and working with venues and other communities on welcoming our constituents."

A recent example of VSA's success is a large exhibit held at the Abernathy Art Center in 2015. "Curator and Artist Leisa Rich put together a fantastic group of artists with hidden disabilities who displayed work speaking to those disabilities," says Labbe-Webb. The show allowed many of the artists to explore a part of themselves that they had kept hidden not only in public, but even in their artistic lives. "The feedback from that exhibit is still coming in from all over the world because Leisa was so great at getting it out over social media." Some of the artists even attended the opening via virtual interfaces placed on robots!

Other work extends access to more traditionally excluded groups like the Deaf. VSA started a recent collaboration with the Serenbe Playhouse that has increased attendance of performances by Deaf audience members by around 1000%! While that might mean that still only 20 to 35 Deaf people attend, it is one more example of a substantial increase of the viable space within which people can participate.

Full Radius Dance

We may not know why we feel compelled to create art, or why we feel drawn to engage with it, but we know that we enjoy the experience. Getting to see people participating with art in ways that they recently were not able is hugely rewarding for Labbe-Webb. "I love that I can see it in the faces of the people we work with: that a vet, living with PTSD goes from 'ART, puhh' to 'is it really time to go? I want to finish this.' I love sending teaching artists into the community who are excited to work with anyone who comes into their classroom when three hours ago they were terrified of the 'blind guy in my community center who wants to take painting lessons.'" There are so many rewards to helping people to engage more fully with themselves and their lives.

Of course, the size of the task is enormous, and the resources are always a challenge. VSA is always looking for people to help make big things happen, whether in a leadership role or just taking care of business. "Right now," says Labbe-Webb, "I'm looking for someone who wants to coordinate an art show in the fall that has the potential to be a fundraiser for us. I've got folks willing to help but no one to lead the effort."

So if you're in the Atlanta area, and have some drive and a little time, go check out VSA arts of Georgia. They're working to change the world for people, and you can help make that change a reality.

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