Meet the local artist who’s “rewriting the rulebook” on Arts accessibility
Chantal Spencer, the founder of ‘VisAbility Arts’, is seeking to “rewrite the rulebook” on accessibility for artists and makers. VisAbility Arts is an organisation that empowers artists and makers living with invisible disabilities and neurodivergences by creating spaces that are flexible to their needs. As a Brighton-based artist with invisible illnesses herself, Chantal understands how pivotal broadening arts accessibility could be to others. Brighton Journal had the pleasure of speaking to Chantal about VisAbility Arts’ recent launch week at the Fishing Quarter Gallery, her future vision for the organisation, and the exciting events on the horizon.
Featured image: Chantal receiving the “Mentee of the Year Award” from the University of Brighton.
How did the concept of VisAbility Arts come about?
I’m studying 3D Design and Craft at the University of Brighton at the moment, and one of our projects last year was about designing an exhibition. I wanted to design something completely accessible; the idea behind the launch week at Fishing Quarter Gallery came from the professional practice element of my course. Throughout the whole process I’ve had so much support from the University, my mentor, and others who were involved in the group project with me. We ended up having the work of 9 artists with invisible disabilities on display. It was important to us to create an environment that was supportive and flexible to the exhibiting artists’ needs. VisAbility Arts really stemmed from there. At first we had difficulty reaching out to people, but now the numbers are soaring. It’s wonderful to see how many people we’re touching.
How did you support exhibiting artists at the VisAbility Arts launch week?
I felt like the one thing we needed to start off with was a really long timeline. I know firsthand that almost all invisible conditions can have a common denominator where you may have times when you can’t produce the things you want to be producing. By having a long timeline, we could map out to the artists just how long they had until the event. For those who needed that extra time, it was there and available to them. We were putting the call out for artists in around March, and the exhibition was put up in August. Comparatively, most galleries give you a few weeks to sort things out, if that. It was lovely to ask artists “what do you need from me?” and responding to those requests.
What feedback did you receive from VisAbility Arts launch at Fishing Quarter Gallery?
A lot of people said how inspirational it was. A lot of the work I design is for disabilities. I’m more of a designer than a fine artist. I had quite a few pieces of my work on display that were there to interact with, play with and touch. One of the first people who came through the door was a woman who said she had an autistic son who’d love to own something like that. She said she’s always looking for fun and exciting things for her son to have. My art is about de-medicalising certain aspects of our self-care that don’t have to be medicalised.
It was really empowering to see visitors coming in, reading and looking. We made the exhibition completely accessible, and it was lovely to hear from people who expressed they had invisible conditions themselves. It was amazing to see how many people it touched, we had 120-150 people come in everyday. Far more than I expected.
Could you tell me about your involvement at Disability Pride?
It was my first year as part of the committee for Disability Pride this year, and the art tent was mine to run. Almost everyone that applied to be part of our VisAbility Arts launch week that didn’t make the final cut were advised to exhibit at Disability Pride. We had about 15 people exhibiting there and it was wonderful to see the diversity of the exhibitors. It was also lovely to see the familiar faces who are starting to build a community spirit within VisAbility Arts.
What does the future of VisAbility Arts have in store?
We’re about throwing the rule book out of the window and not having a profit margin to worry about. At the moment we’re voluntary, I think we’re going to turn into a non-profit organisation. It’ll always be about putting money back into the community rather than making money for the organisation. In a few years, we want to be the people others will come to when they talk about accessibility at their events. We want to develop our website and create a respected brand as well.
The next step for us is our Winter Fair. There are 25 slots available to vendors, but more if people want to share a stall. We’re trying to get bigger and spread the love.
What can people expect from the VisAbility Arts Winter Fair?
It’ll be held in the lovely space of the “Friends Meeting House”. It’s a great space for several reasons; the ground floor is completely wheelchair accessible, as we’d never host an event that wasn’t. There’s also a carpeted floor and wooden panelled walls that create calming acoustics. We’ve got a quiet room for a vendors as well so that they can go and take breaks, and helpers on-hand who will be briefed on what each individual vendor might need. We’ve been really open to all the feedback we’ve had from vendors so far on ways we can help them. We have put up the early-bird application for the Winter Fair already, and should a vendor be accepted, VisAbility Arts will support their requirements.