100 Dallas Creatives: No. 9 Allison Davidson, Advocate for Art Accessibility

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Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. It's true that art is not just a beautiful part of life, but it can be valuable for mental development. And not just at young ages, but late into life. Even so, accessibility programs are few and far between. Which is what the Meadows Museum has been working to change with programs, like Connections at the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University, which works with people in early stages of dementia.

In a culture that relentlessly worships and accommodates youth, the work done by Allison Davidson and the team at the Meadows brings attention to an underserved population of people interested in art, presenting programs that offer thoughtful, engaged access to the museums for people with autism, dementia, or other forms of physical or mental impairments.

Can you talk a little about how the program at Meadows got started? Is this something the museum has been doing for a long time, or is it relatively new? The inclusive initiative began about four years ago with Connections, our program for visitors with early stage dementia and their care partners. We target the program to be as much for the caregiver as it is for the participant with a diagnosis. I have been lucky enough to be involved with this program since the beginning and still have the pleasure of leading this amazing group of people when we get together.

We were incorporating music, movement, social interaction, and art making during our Connections sessions when our Director of Education, Dr. Carmen Smith, thought of applying some of these approaches with other audiences. We convened focus groups with visitors with vision impairments to find out their preferences and begin creating programs that would serve people with diverse abilities. We learned a lot from our focus groups and our experiences over the last few years, and we believe an inclusive approach that does not define people or set them apart based on their abilities is the best path for us and for our visitors. We have found that inclusive programs enhance the museum experience for all participants, not just those with special access needs, because we all learn so much just from hearing one another's perspectives.

The accessibility program focuses on bringing art to people with disabilities like visual impairment, along with dementia. How do you meet the needs of such a diverse group of people? We think about access in slightly different terms because we aim to serve the needs of mixed abilities groups, which is why we call our programs inclusive. They are not designed to segregate audiences into groups who need special access and those who need regular access. We don't have a program devoted exclusively to participants with visual impairments, for example. Instead we have programs for the public that are inclusive of participants with visual impairments through the addition of rich visual description from our tour guides and fellow participants.

Our programs are multisensory and may also feature tactile reproductions, textures, art materials and tools, literature, music, sounds, scents, or any number of non-visual ways to describe a work of art in order to appeal to both sighted and non-sighted visitors. With advance notice we have hired American Sign Language interpreters for visitors who are hearing impaired. We try to enhance everyone's experience with a work of art by engaging visitors regardless of their physical abilities or particular interests. We believe everyone who wants to experience art should be able to, and we are doing our best to become a fully accessible museum. But it remains a reflective learning process and we know we still have a long way to go.

Can you talk about any success stories in your project? People who keep coming back, and maybe pick up a paintbrush or camera? We have regulars who have attended every Connections program since the very beginning. Several participants were artists when they were younger (some still are), so I can't take credit for their ability or interest, but we certainly appreciate having them with us, and their contributions to our program are invaluable. We have become like a little family over the years and we are always happy to see new faces as well. I feel like our biggest success may be the close personal relationships this opportunity has allowed us to form and the wonderful times we spend together just being in the moment. It is so important to have a retreat from the many worries and stresses that affect daily life when you or your dearest loved one is living with dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

One of the more meaningful moments we've had came while viewing a large portrait of a beautiful young woman. Long-term memories often remain intact during early stage Alzheimer's, and one participant was inspired to share his memories of his mother (who passed away when he was a young child) with his daughter. She let us know after the program that she was happy and surprised to realize she could continue learning about her father and his life despite his illness, and that she could feel even closer to him by talking about art.

In terms of accessibility, where do you think other museums are lacking? How could they improve? I think each museum is different and it is their own place to determine where they may want to improve or prioritize new initiatives, but we certainly try to recognize where we are lacking ourselves and constantly work to improve. I do think it becomes a challenge, however, when someone calls and asks tough questions that museum staff are not prepared to answer: "I'm visually impaired and my husband is sighted," "My favorite aunt has Alzheimer's," or "My son is autistic," "...Do you have anything to offer us?" Museums should expect to receive more of these questions as word spreads about growing access initiatives at museums in our area and around the world.

What programs do you hope to roll out in the coming months? We are very excited about releasing a beta version of a fully inclusive and accessible museum app that has been in the works. It may be ready for focus group testing some time this year if all goes well. We are also co-hosting the BEEP Egg Hunt with the Dallas Junior Chamber of Commerce on March 21 for families of children with visual impairments and we will have our annual Family Day celebration on April 18. We will offer inclusive art making activities and gallery tours during both of these events.

100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson 35. Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot 34. Music Innovator Stefan Gonzalez 33. Triple Threat Giovanni Valderas 32. Cultural Connector Lauren Cross 31. Critical Artist Thor Johnson 30. Delicate Touch Margaret Meehan 29. Fashion Forward Charles Smith II 28. Dedicated Artist Carolyn Sortor 27. Political Cyber Banksy Wylie H Dallas 26. Dance Preserver Lisa Mesa Rogers 25. Rob 'Ain't No Creative Like A Bow-Tie-Wearing Creative' Shearer 24. Scholar of the Stage Susan Sargeant 23. Photographer of Record Justin Terveen 22. Music Man Jeffrey Liles 21. Keeper of the Safe Room Lauren Gray 20. Playwright Jonathan Norton, Man of Many Words 19. Filmmaker and Funniest Comic in Texas Linda Stogner 18. Gallerist Jordan Roth, the Art Scene Cheerleader 17. Artful Advocate Vicki Meek 16. Ballet Queen Katie Puder 15. Carlos Alejandro Guajardo-Molina, the Book Guy 14. Janeil Engelstad, an Artist with Purpose 13. Will Power, Playwright and Mentor 12. Gallerists Gina & Dustin Orlando, Boundary Pushers 11. Moody Fuqua, Music Community Organizer 10. Joshua Peugh, Choreographer to Watch

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