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Art Matters is the podcast that brings together popular culture and art history, hosted by Ferren Gipson.

Next time you're uploading an image to Instagram, scroll to the bottom of the page where you add a caption and you'll see 'Advanced Settings'. Within these settings, you have the option to add something called alt text. This is brief text that enables screen reading applications to describe what an image looks like. This is just one small way to make visual media more accessible online, but charities like VocalEyes help organisations think about how blind and partially sighted people experience visual media in physical spaces like galleries and museums.

'Our work includes training museum staff in audio description and visual awareness,' says Anna Fineman, the Museums, Galleries and Heritage Programme Manager for VocalEyes. She works with institutions to train them on how to create audio descriptive guides and incorporate tactile materials to facilitate engagement with works.

One common misconception is that people are either sighted or have no sight at all, but in reality, there's a much more nuanced spectrum of sight perception. 'It's actually only about 4% of people registered blind that will have no sight whatsoever. Therefore, the majority of people will have some degree of perception and this will change over time,' says Anna. 'We feel it's important to not necessarily focus on how much sight a person has, but just to be very aware that levels of sight will vary.'

Artist Sally Booth supports VocalEyes workshop attendees to create clay sculptures at Reading Museum

Artist Sally Booth supports VocalEyes workshop attendees to create clay sculptures at Reading Museum

At Leeds Art Gallery a group of visitors create sculpture from stones during a VocalEyes workshop

At Leeds Art Gallery a group of visitors create sculpture from stones during a VocalEyes workshop

VocalEyes are partnering with Art UK on our sculpture digitisation project to help provide workshops for audiences with sight loss. They're also working to train collection staff around the country in visual awareness. While Art UK is working with VocalEyes to focus on sculpture activities, there are other mediums that can also facilitate interesting tactile engagement with works.

A tactile diagram with braille labelling, created by VocalEyes

A tactile diagram with braille labelling, created by VocalEyes

Tactile drawings are tools that allow people to engage with an image through touch. Much like a topographical map, a tactile drawing can help give an overview of a two-dimensional work. 'It's reducing a work to the key component parts,' says Anna. 'You get a sort of sense of the whole [work] and what the scale is and how the different parts relate to each other.'

Sally Booth helps teach some of our sculpture workshops and is an artist with personal and professional experience of visual impairment. She also teaches two small art classes for blind and partially sighted adults that aids students in creating works using 3D and 2D materials. As a practising artist herself, Sally explained to me that over the years her sight has informed her professional approach. 'In order to continue working as an artist, I've had to change the methods that I work in,' says Sally. She now uses higher contrast materials and has developed a way to draw without lifting her utensil to keep track of her place on the page.

Water-Lilies

Water-Lilies after 1916

Claude Monet (1840–1926)

The National Gallery, London

Partially sighted artists in UK collections

In the later stages of his life, Claude Monet experienced sight loss and worked on his 'Water Lilies' paintings – arguably the series for which he's most famous. 'He was registerable as blind at that time. He had cataracts and had one eye that he could see blue and one eye that could see yellow,' says Sally. The large paintings are a beautiful wash of colours that convey the fleeting essence of his ponds.

1880–1881, cast c.1922, painted bronze with muslin & silk on wooden base by Edgar Degas (1834–1917)

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

1880–1881, cast c.1922, painted bronze with muslin & silk on wooden base by Edgar Degas (1834–1917)

Edgar Degas lost his sight as he got older and as a result, explored working in the sculpture medium. 'The sculptures of the ballerinas are directly because he lost his sight to draw them,' says Sally.

Abthorpe Churchyard, Northamptonshire

Abthorpe Churchyard, Northamptonshire 1991

Sargy Mann (1937–2015)

Parliamentary Art Collection

In more recent history, Sargy Mann developed his own techniques to facilitate his practice. This included keeping a large cardboard tube in his studio that was the height of his wife so that he could get the scale right in paintings. He began losing his sight in 1973 and passed away in 2015 – from the point that he began to lose his vision, he began to experiment more in his work. 'Everyone said his painting got better as he lost his sight,' says Sally. 'He still retained the rigour that was important to him, but his colours became much more dramatic.'

Making collections more accessible

There are small steps institutions can take to make things a little easier for visitors with sight loss, ranging from audio descriptive guides to print materials with larger text. For the most part, when spaces and opportunities are made more accessible, everyone benefits.

'The best things [institutions] can do is develop an ethos whereby inclusion of people with disabilities is standard practice throughout the organisation. That includes back-of-house, in terms of staffing, as well as visitors', says Anna.

'It happens really right from before the visit – even planning the visit,' says Sally. 'If [a museum or gallery's website] has information about access or they have a phone number you can ring if you want to get advice, or if they're quite clear about what resources they've got and what they haven't got, that's all fine.'

Head over to the VocalEyes website to learn more about their work. You can also visit the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) website to discover over 3,000 works by artists with disabilities.

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