How HoloCenter Addressed Accessibility during the Pandemic.

Updated: Jun 17

Combining visual art, audio storytelling, and text-based transcripts for a more accessible exhibition experience, IRL or remote.

Museum visitors standing inside an exhibition space with blue neon lights.
BLISSVILLE by Kamari Carter & Julian Day, installation in EDGE OF LIGHT, 2020.
“Art has the capacity to continuously expand its audience, the number of people that it’s speaking to and the amount of people that it’s looking to really engage. Whatever we can do to find avenues to make that more accessible, the better off we are.”
–Jonathan Sims, Artist & Curator

Jonathan Sims is a visual artist based in Queens, New York, who originally began his practice as a painter but has over the years begun working with a new medium… light. “It’s really exciting to be able to work with a medium that feels like you’re collaborating with the intangible elements of it, as opposed to trying to very rigorously create a very perfect image on canvas,” he shares.

Sims is the curator behind EDGE OF LIGHT, an exhibition on view from December 3, 2020 through December 27, 2020 at the Plaxall Gallery in Long Island City, New York. Centered on experimenting with various perceptions of light, the exhibition is one of many experiences presented by Culture Lab LIC and the Center for the Holographic Arts (HoloCenter), an organization dedicated to promoting and developing holographic artwork.

Looking at an installation with red and blue 3D glasses. Inside the HoloCenter exhibition space.
NNAATTUURRAA MMOORRTTAA by Nicholas Steindorf and Kyle Williams (Blinn & Lambert), installation in EDGE OF LIGHT, 2020.

“The show itself, EDGE OF LIGHT, is actually in many ways a sequel to a show that the HoloCenter put on last year in the same space and was curated by Martina Mrongovius, Creative Director and Chief Curator at HoloCenter. Martina invited me to be a part of SPACE:LIGHT, which was the show at the time. Then a few months later, we sat down and she asked if I would curate the follow-up to the show. This was before the pandemic, and I very excitedly agreed. Then during the summer, I started talking more about whether or not it was even a possibility. We both decided collectively that the benefits of trying to put together the show regardless of how it would be seen and how people could experience the work outweigh the potential of not attempting anything at all. So, we started moving forward in trying to consider different ways to do this safely,” says Sims.

Mrongovius and Sims talked about several factors that would allow EDGE OF LIGHT to run smoothly including timed entry tickets, virtual openings, and alternative forms of documenting the exhibition in case the show had to be shut down.

Making sure the exhibition would live on as videos, photographs, 3D anaglyphs, and having the artists speak about the work themselves through the official audio guide on the Gesso app was an important part of their planning. “I really wanted to engage the material itself in a way that didn’t require people to not only squint in the dark space but also have access to it in a virtual way,” says Sims.

From neon forest fires to bioluminescence, the artists’ pieces were incorporated into the HoloCenter’s audio guide along with Sims’ narration of the exhibition, allowing people from anywhere to hear from the artists and curator directly.

Creating alternative experiences opened up opportunities to create content that was accessible to a larger audience. “Our biggest priority was to make sure people had access to the show virtually, but then we also felt that this was an opportunity to include additional descriptions to the show like audio descriptions and text descriptions that could exist in transcript form and would be external to the actual show itself,” says Sims. “Anything we can do to promote accessibility is a great thing, and I think Gesso’s platform is a really excellent opportunity to make this much easier for organizations.”

“The audio guides feel like an addition that not only works for people who are viewing the show in the space or online virtually, but also they give the exhibition the capacity to reach people with visual impairments,” he says.

Reflecting on the value that audio guides have on the visual arts, Sims believes that “the artist is not just considering the immediate visual component of someone looking at a piece but also having someone understand the conceptual background that’s behind it too.” “I think it does a disservice to visual art to immediately always consider that a photograph has the capacity to capture the entirety of it. Having an audio description of the work and having the artists speak about it themselves really is like unlocking an additional layer of meaning and purpose and intent that exists within the art. Not a lot of artists necessarily have the tools within a gallery space to truly engage the viewers in that way, and so I think having an audio component really allows people the ability to think about the work from a description standpoint but also an artist statement standpoint. To have an actual dialogue with the artists themselves through this additional layer of engagement really does a great service to the artist and to the work that they’re producing too, especially if the work is very subtle or nuanced in what it’s attempting to accomplish. A lot of things can get very easily lost just visually that are still important and meaningful outside of that,” he says.

An installation called forest fire by Emma Hendry in the HoloCenter exhibition.
FOREST FIRE by Emma Hendry, installation in EDGE OF LIGHT, 2020.

In terms of accessibility, “I think that really any individual working within the arts should always be considering the potential of reaching viewers in ways that are beyond the immediate hope to put together a show and sell out pieces and things like that. Really engaging artists and asking them to be a part of the process in a meaningful way, particularly in group shows, gives all of us the chance to find ways to make art more broadly available to everyone. Whatever we can do to make that a greater focus is really something that I think will not just benefit the individuals who are working in the galleries and the artists themselves but really benefit society as a whole when we start to think about who it is we’re trying to reach with visual arts and the arts in general,” says Sims.

Gesso believes that art and culture should be accessible and inclusive to all. This belief is our guiding principle when we design mobile experiences and museum audio guides that advance our understanding of culture and society. Museum professionals, let’s work together.