By Erin J. Hoppe (VSA Ohio) & Caitlyn Lynch (Columbus Museum of Art)

The way a space is designed and adorned evokes strong feelings - comfort, protection, creativity, uncertainty, vulnerability. In a recent piece for DesignGroup’s website, Michael Bongiorno, architect of the new Walter Wing at the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) writes that an, “…institution is a place where human beings come together to form an emotional connection to a unique, inspiring environment where they can create positive memories through shared experiences.” This quote speaks to the potential of a museum and other cultural spaces to foster connections and change perceptions. As no two people are alike, welcoming a diverse community requires thoughtfulness about how those environments are built and accessed.

When the museum opened its new wing early this year, it also underwent a rebranding. Leadership at the museum saw an opportunity to update the visual aspects of its brand and confirm the values that brand embodies - Creativity, Experience, and Relationships. These values underscore the importance of people to the institution and people-first thinking, design, and language in all of our work. CMA aspires to be radically inclusive and cultivate an atmosphere that facilitates opportunities to observe, think, and participate in all that it does. Truly creating such inclusive environments, particularly for people with disabilities, requires thinking outside the box, an on-going learning process by staff and volunteers, and finding partners who can support shared visions.

VSA Ohio (VSAO), the state organization on arts and disability, began partnering with the Columbus Museum of Art in 2012, when the museum hosted the first ever opening night of the ReelAbilities Film Festival Columbus. VSAO’s mission is to increase access to the arts and arts education for people with any disability. They work with people with disabilities and their support networks. Recently, VSAO has begun providing accessibility trainings for staff and volunteers at cultural institutions. In June, VSAO presented sessions on Accessibility 101 and Autism Awareness to over 100 staff and docents at CMA. A primary message is that making environments more accessible to people with disabilities means thinking about how physical spaces impact experiences, how planning new programs should begin by thinking broadly about inclusion, a how the human-factor and attitudes matter.

This fall VSA Ohio, Columbus Museum of Art, and many others will host the 2016 Arts and Autism Conference: Creating, Learning, Living. This one-of-a-kind, sensory-friendly conference will take place on September 20, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm, at the Columbus Museum of Art and focus on how to make museums and other cultural spaces more welcoming to people with autism and their families. Individuals from around the country will convene to share best practices, network, enjoy arts experiences, learn new strategies, and hear unique narratives. People with autism have unique relationships to spaces, where unexpected events (noises, lighting) can make or break a positive experience. By bringing together administrators, educators, and families, this partnership and conference will promote access and inclusion through the lenses of creativity, experience, and relationships. Details about the conference can be found at http://www.vsao.org/artsautismconference2016.