This April, more than 1,000 students, professors, community members and individuals with disabilities will gather at HWS to paint, dance, act and engage in other artistic activities during the annual Arts Experience Festival. This will mark the 10th year for the celebration of inclusion for those of all ability levels.
The Arts Experience is sponsored by HWS and the Collaborative of NY, Inc., which represents 15 Arc chapters that provide supports to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The festival offers an opportunity for people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities, the HWS community and the public to explore expression through the arts.
Associate Professor of Education Mary Kelly, a coordinator for the event, says this year’s lineup includes 28 events ranging from painting classes and musical explorations to yoga classes and a bell choir rehearsal, and a performance of Associate Professor of Theatre Heather May’s play “Rearranging the Furniture,” which challenges audiences to create space for difference.
One of the reasons the festival has been so successful, says Kelly, is because of the mix of individuals, which she says is roughly a 50-50 split between those who have developmental disabilities and those from the campus and local communities.
“The synergy that happens in the arts workshops has been a true highlight of the festival,” says Kelly. “Community members with intellectual and developmental disabilities and HWS students work side by side to create art, get to know each other, and begin to break down social barriers to inclusion through the experience.”
Success, says Kelly, is measured in the many individual interactions that occur throughout the two weeks. “Inclusion happens a lot in the little moments,” she says. “Where you share a smile, or collaborate on a dance movement or discover that you both really like a certain song. Those moments where you break down barriers are really important, and that’s what we’re aiming to create.”
One highlight of the festival will be an art exhibit and question and answer period with artist Larry Bissonnette, along with a film screening of My Classic Life as an Artist: A Portrait of Larry Bissonnette (2005). Bissonnette, who has autism, is an artist and disability rights activist. He exhibits his art nationally and is a frequently featured presenter at education conferences.
The Arts Experience, originally called the Disability and the Arts Festival, was first held in 2010. It rose out of a themed issue of the Seneca Review titled “The Lyric Body,” which featured poets and writers addressing their experiences with disabilities and difference. Issues raised by the journal, along with a regional film festival focused on disability issues, were the catalysts for creating an event. “One of the biggest lessons learned,” says Kelly, “is how to create a community partnership. Right from the beginning, this event has been campus and community working together.”
Kelly says that she and her team are talking about a possible expansion of the festival in future years, including the option of using additional locations. “We’d have to lay some good ground work to make sure it’s inclusive and well-hosted,” she says. “We want to make sure that all the valuable lessons we’ve learned continue to happen.”
All activities are free, open to the public and wheelchair accessible.