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A more welcoming city: DisArt symposium is changing the way GR approaches disability


Is it possible to create a more inclusive, welcoming city? DisArt Symposium: Disability Arts Now looks to be a part of that answer. 
Often when asked what I like about Grand Rapids (and before I can reply), a long list of pre-qualifiers roll off the inquisitors’ tongues, from “Beer City, USA” to “ArtPrize” to “the cheap real estate.”

Shocking to many but a few close friends, I actually remain quite hopeful on Grand Rapids, but solely because of one quality that continues to set us apart: access to time (and what comes with this).

Time is the fuel we don’t talk about in our quest to position our city’s attractiveness, but it’s what is fueling the entrepreneurial and creative spirit of this region.

One organization, DisArt, understands how to leverage time effectively in Grand Rapids. Arriving on the scene in 2015,  it is steadily continuing to evolve what is possible to start here.

A newish nonprofit started as a project at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD), DisArt is seeking to change our perceptions about disability through a series of highly curated experiences and through its many strategic partnerships the group forges in our world. The organization has brought the world to our doorstep, traveled outside our city limits and, most recently, even launched a podcast, Distopia, to expand its reach.

From DisArt’s first event in 2015, when the group presented over the course of 15 days a series of art exhibitions, a fashion show, and speaking engagements all over the city, it has had one  distinct goal: to shine a light on the lived experience of disability. It was, to say the least, an impressive launch, with so much to offer in such a short window of time.

Between then and now, DisArt has partnered with Site:Lab (a nomadic by design pop-up arts project) to produce “ELEVATE” —  a disability-focused fashion show that featured models from our local disability community and upended the typical way one approaches fashion and how we view the individual. It was stunning in its beauty. 

DisArt (again, in partnership with Site:Lab’s Paul Amenta, Alonis Kronschlaeger, and Ted Lott) even traveled to exhibit this past winter at the “UNTITLED” market in Miami with an installation piece, “HYBRID STRUCTURES (Miami Folly).” This piece that I witnessed firsthand fascinated the crowds that descended on the city for the Art Basel show.

While DisArt’s events have raised the dialogue within our own region, and in far-away places like Miami, its next event, DisArt Symposium: Disability Arts Now! (April 6 - 8), has the ability to not only change our community but our world through its contributions.

Yes, at this point you would be fair to toss the “hyperbole card” my way if it weren’t the case that this new event has built in to it an incredible intentionality seeking to change the way we approach disability. It is by far DisArt’s most inventive event to date, showcasing what is possible to make happen here with the addition of time and effort.

“We have a lot of people who want to make Grand Rapids a welcoming city, and we are trying to help them figure that out,” says DisArt Executive Director Christopher Smit, who, along with Managing Director Jill Vyn, have with a host of volunteers curated a powerful three-day symposium featuring some of the world’s best voices on this topic.

Christopher Smit, left, and Jill Vyn, right.After inviting a group leaders who would become the symposium’s main attraction for each of the three days, Smit and Vyn asked each one to describe key words as to where they felt their topics should focus. These one-word descriptors then went on to become the focus of each day’s topic. 

For Thursday, Riva Lehrer — a Chicago-based artist/activist — will present how Disability Arts contributes to identity and how our a cultural understanding of disability shifts under this lens. 

Friday’s keynote speaker, artist-scholar-designer Sara Hendren, will address how the way we design our interactions, cultures and objects alerts us to the realities of Disability Culture. 

And on Saturday, Ruth Gould, member of The British Empire for her work with the Liverpool-based organization DADA Fest, will be in Grand Rapids to discuss how Disability Arts and Culture contribute to the well-being of a city.

All of these topics are sure to produce spirited dialogue around these topics of identity, design, and community, but given the list of speakers’ credentials and the pedagogy, what most certainly blossom out of this symposium is bound to take root and create an impact for good.

It is worth noting that while these keynote speakers are presenting at a public forum at 12:30 p.m. each day of the event, the bulk of the symposium’s day is devoted to serving a more intimate group of academics, arts leaders, and community change agents, whose presence here in our city hopes to produce a series of positive outcomes for future global advancements for this community. 

For while it may seem odd that a community seeking better access would host a closed symposium, have no fear that they understand these concerns.

While being hosted at the ArtPrize Hub on 41 Sheldon Blvd, DisArt Symposium: Disability Arts Now!, will be live streaming for locals and the world. This is a fact confirmed by Vyn, who shares that at this time it is truly shaping up to be a global event, with people signing up from all over the planet to be a part of the live stream.

According to Vyn, the strength of DisArt for Grand Rapids is not just to help our city become a hot destination spot (by becoming more welcoming through the design of our city), but, through events like the DisArt Symposium, to contribute to addressing a global concern of access. It is wonderful that this critically important gathering, where we are expecting insights and ideas to rise, is happening here. 

“This (symposium) is just one way that Grand Rapids can get out in front on this movement that is taking place all over the world,” says Vyn. “It goes back to our beginnings, where we seek to bring people with and without disabilities together in a shared space to gain further understanding and get to know each other better so that we can create new ways of looking at our communities.”

DisArt Symposium: Disability Arts Now! debuts in Grand Rapids on April 6 and runs through April 8. In addition to hosting day-long sessions with a keynote speaker at 12:30 p.m. each day, each night is a series of events, from a film by Helen Keller to a theatrical performance at ArtPrize’s theatre to closing receptions held at The Fed Galleries at KCAD and Site:Lab’s Rumsey Street location.

The future needs all of us. 

Tommy Allen
Publisher 

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