February 1, 2006.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Warren Logan's hands skim the 15th-century marble bust, tracing the lifeless eyes, the slightly agape mouth, the precisely chiseled fur.
He is blind, but he can see.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's new touch tour is among programs at more than 100 museums nationwide that attempt to do what once was thought impossible: make art accessible -- even visible -- to those with little or no sight.
"I get a good picture of the art," 14-year-old Logan said after a recent tour. "I can actually visualize it."
The Nelson-Atkins program has participants first feel pieces of slate and marble -- the materials of which the works they'll feel are made. Later, specially trained docents guide the hands of the visually impaired across 500-year-old Spanish tomb covers, an Italian bust of St. John the Baptist and numerous pieces by celebrated Modernist sculptor Henry Moore, asking them questions about their perceptions and offering them history on the piece.
Tina Jinkens dreaded class trips to the museum as a child. But now, the 35-year-old blind woman's face fills with delight as she touches art.
"I always felt like I didn't get that much out of it," Jinkens recalled. "But if someone can put their hands on a sculpture and really get something out of an exhibit it may open up new worlds to them."
Art museums first began to make their collections accessible to those without sight in the early 1970s, although with major museums like the Nelson-Atkins only now implementing such programs, the spread across the country has been slow.
The "Form in Art" initiative at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was among the first to reach out to the blind. The three-year program combines the study of art history, tactile examinations of objects in the museum's collections and participants' own creation of artwork.
Because original paintings can never be touched, the Philadelphia Museum makes reproductions that may emphasize the heavy brush strokes of van Gogh or another artist's signature elements, dioramalike models that use materials such as glass to represent water or terry cloth for a lamb, and black-and-white interpretations that allow someone with limited vision to more easily see the contrast.
The museum also offers tours for the visually impaired that include more than 50 touchable pieces. Street Thoma, who heads the Philadelphia Museum's accessibility programs, said a blind person's initial visit to the museum can yield a strong reaction.
"When a blind person thinks of an art museum in society they think, 'That's not for me,"' Thoma said. "The feeling that the person gets is, 'Wow. I can be a part. I'm not cut out of this. I'm not isolated. I'm not alone."'
Those sentiments are repeated before pieces of art tucked in museums across the country.
In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts' longtime tour for the blind sometimes makes use of poetry or music. At the Umlauf Sculpture Garden in Austin, Texas, visually impaired visitors can listen to an audio guide that instructs them where to reach, what to feel and the history behind the piece. And at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where touch tours have been available since 1972, those without sight can lay their hands on masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin.
"Really, what these individuals are doing is what many people want to do when they visit the museum, which many people do when the guards aren't looking," said Francesca Rosenberg, who heads MOMA's accessibility programs.
The plight to earn a general acceptance of the idea that blind people can actually benefit from exposure to art and even develop a mental image of pieces is one that has been even more difficult.
When Art Education for the Blind was founded in New York in 1987 to advocate museums making their collections accessible, many questioned the group's mission.
"People would laugh," said Nina Levent, associate director of the organization. "They thought it was a ridiculous idea."
John Kennedy, a University of Toronto at Scarborough professor whose 1993 book, "Drawing and the Blind," is considered the seminal work on the subject, said those without sight can often understand art as well as those with full vision.
"Sculptures make perfect sense for the blind, but also blind people understand pictures," he said. "The image formed in the blind person's mind is, in most important respects, identical to the image formed in the sighted person's mind."
Kennedy's statement -- that a blind person might come up with a mental image close to that of a sighted person -- is stunning, and one that he still has difficulty getting some people to accept.
There were no naysayers when a small group of young people crowded the Nelson-Atkins' mezzanine sculpture gallery for a tour. Shirley Cottrell beamed as her 9-year-old granddaughter, Brooke, reached to caress a piece taller than her.
She could feel every little groove, Cottrell said. She could see.
Source URL: http://www.nctimes.com/articles/2006/02/01/entertainment/art/2106104818.txt.
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