GRAND RAPIDS – A new festival coming to Grand Rapids this spring is on a mission to change perceptions about disability, one work of art at a time.
The inaugural DisArt Festival, to be held from April 10-25, will enliven the city with several expansive disability art exhibitions, a film festival, a fashion show, theatrical and dance performances, and other family-oriented experiential learning opportunities, all aimed at championing creativity and conquering prejudice in order to unite and strengthen the community at-large.
The DisArt Festival was developed through a collaboration among Disability Advocates of Kent County, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, ArtPrize, Arts in Motion, and other local organizations over the past two years.
“As a society, we have been socialized to fear physical and mental differences,” said DisArt Director Chris Smit. “Too often, the non-disabled community is uncomfortable interacting with people who have disabilities. We believe that the ultimate test of living in a community is found in our willingness to change our minds about one another; in our ability to know each other in better ways.”
Smit, who’s also a professor of Media Studies at Calvin College, was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy and has been in a wheelchair since he was a child. He believes that art has the power to realign our assumptions about life, and, pointing to ArtPrize as evidence, sees large-scale community events like DisArt as a way to bring transformative experiences with art to a broad and diverse audience.
“Art that involves disability provides opportunities to see physical and mental differences in new ways,” he said. “This art can help transform differences into similarities. Even more radically, we believe disability art can alter the realities of a town by connecting people to one another in authentic ways.”
The centerpiece of DisArt will be an exhibition entitled “Art of the Lived Experiment.” The exhibition was originally curated by Aaron Williamson for the Liverpool, England-based disability arts organization DaDa Fest in 2014, and will be making its U.S. premiere in Grand Rapids. ALE will feature the work of more than 35 internationally renowned disability artists, including sculptor Tony Heaton and performance artist Simon Raven. In addition to these works, seven additional North American pieces have been commissioned by the U.S. curator of ALE, Amanda Cachia, including those by mixed-media artist Jeremy Burleson and performance artist Raphaelle de Groot. The exhibition was organized by UICA, and will be displayed at UICA, The Fed Galleries at KCAD, and Grand Rapids Art Museum from April 10 – July 31, 2015.
“This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to showcase the strength of our local art institutions, as well as the amazing possibilities that arise when they work together in collaboration,” said UICA Executive Director Miranda Krajniak. “Engagement with art creates opportunities to connect with one another and with the world around us in ways that create meaningful and positive dialogues within communities. These are the types of transformative experiences UICA strives to create, and we’re deeply committed to helping DisArt make an impact.”
DisArt Festival will also showcase additional disability art events including a film festival, fashion show, and dance performances. There will also be additional exhibitions in photography and painting in galleries throughout Grand Rapids, including Calvin College's 106 S. Division Gallery and the Harris Building. These exhibits will showcase art from national and local artists. The Festival will also offer family-oriented, experiential learning opportunities throughout downtown, including art making stations, school tours, and other opportunities for kids to contemplate disability and creativity.
DisArt is part of a larger initiative undertaken by the City of Grand Rapids that will designate 2015 as the “Year of Arts + Access.” With support from the office of Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell, the initiative dedicates Grand Rapids to a year of celebrating the artistic ingenuity of our city, paying particular attention to the ways in which art can help us build community, celebrate diversity, and incorporate all members of our community.
Heartwell has been an energetic supporter of this exciting festival. “This festival, and our year-long initiative on arts and access, continues a long tradition in this city of celebrating the important role of art and community building. DisArt Festival will no doubt shine as another example of Grand Rapids’ commitment to people with disabilities, to the arts, and to creating a vibrant culture of ingenuity.”
KCAD is also launching an initiative in conjunction with DisArt to explore the issue of art and access with its students as well as the community more generally. With the continued support of KCAD, UICA and Ferris State University, DisArt will help lead the community at-large into a broader understanding of the important social issues at hand.
DisArt and “Art of the Lived Experiment” will also entail major fundraising initiatives for KCAD, Ferris, and UICA through 2014-15, ensuring that these institutions can continue the support of and participation in the vibrant creative community here in West Michigan and beyond. Lead donors supporting the DisArt Festival and the Art of the Lived Experiment exhibition include the Wege Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“As an institution that believes creativity can empower any individual to make an impact on the world around them, KCAD is proud and honored to be a part of this important event,” said KCAD Interim President Oliver Evans. “DisArt is truly a community effort, and through its accessible and thought-provoking programming, we will discover ways to make our community stronger, more open, and more accepting of others’ differences.”
The DisArt festival may only last for two weeks, but Smit believes that the momentum the event will generate will last well into the future, and help Grand Rapids create impact far beyond the city limits.
“This festival will put Grand Rapids on the map in the disability arts world,” he said. “The premiere of ‘Art of the Lived Experiment’ will mark the first time an international disability art display of this magnitude has traveled anywhere in the United States. In addition, the year-long focus on arts and access should reverberate throughout the Midwest, showcasing Grand Rapids as a city supporting and encouraging radical changes in perceptions about disability, access and community.”