• photo Shape Arts

    Adam Reynolds

    in his workshop

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The Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary, administered by Shape Arts, was set up in memory of sculptor Adam Reynolds, and supports disabled artists by offering the opportunity to engage in a three month residency at a high profile gallery or cultural institution. 


The winner of the 2014 Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary, hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum with support from The Helen Hamlyn Centre of Design at the Royal College of Arts, is multidisciplinary artist Carmen Papalia.

Papalia makes experiential projects about access with regard to public space, the art institution and visual culture. His current work is focussed on developing and conducting participatory projects which create prolonged moments of radical accessibility in institutional and non-institutional settings. Born in Vancouver, Papalia has worked extensively across Canada and the USA and has contributed an article entitled ‘A New Model for Access in the Museum’ to Disability Studies Quarterly.



Image shows Carmen Papalia in the street holding a glowing white foldable cane

ARMB Winner 2014 Carmen Papalia
Photo Kristin Rochelle Lantz


"Nearly a month after first hearing the term “disability arts”, I found that artists with body and mind differences, despite being engaged in radically progressive practices, were marginalized in contemporary art. This fact didn’t sit well with me since, at the time, I had just started a MFA degree and was learning how to develop my artistic practice—with the goal of making some kind of career for myself. I feared that my work would only ever be experienced by disabled people (who would probably agree with what I had to say) and that public perceptions around disability would continue to be problematic. My goal, eventually, was to get my work into a show at a contemporary art space, not a disability art space—with the intention of sharing my observations in a mainstream and contemporary context. I thought that the exhibition, as a form, would help me find people to introduce my ideas to, and that the work itself, whatever it was, would open a space that would complicate disability and contemporary art. More than anything else I wanted the bubble within which I felt supported to grow, and for it to be full of all sorts of people—not just people that identify as disabled.


For me, the term “disabled” is more of a marker of where society is than a description of the status of my body. I identify as a disabled person because the systems that I participate in do not serve my individual needs and do not empower me to thrive.


Museums, for example, disable me as a viewer. Everything from the artwork to the explanatory text assumes a subject that uses their visual sense as a primary way of knowing, and I am a non-visual learner that requires a different frame of reference. Sometimes I will participate in a touch or audio tour but feel like these programs are misguided since they offer me an experience that is a derivative of the privileged visual art experience. Contrary to their purpose, access programs do not make the museum more accessible to me, they subjugate the ways in which I learn and govern my participation in contemporary art.


It is precisely this position that attracted me to the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary—as I believe that the award aims to address and interrupt the structural oppression that continues to keep those with body and mind differences from participating in the cultural activity of the Arts. I was impressed that the chosen artist would be supported in realizing a project at a mainstream institution, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and that the chosen artists needs would be addressed, collaboratively, by the V&A, the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and by Shape Arts—an organization dedicated to promoting accessibility in cultural institutions and supporting the careers of disabled artists.


This model for support is not only difficult to come by given the current cultural landscape, it is exactly the sort of action necessary in healing the gap between disability and contemporary art.


Currently, decisions regarding accessibility are made behind closed doors and without public consultation, resulting in cities and public institutions that do not serve  a vast and diverse majority of the population. While city building legislation requires that public spaces are accessible to those with physical access needs, and public programs invite the participation of certain target demographics, finding the support in line with ones individual needs is nearly impossible without a strong sensibility around self-advocacy and how to identify and interrupt multiple forms of oppression.


However, if the accessibility of the systems that we participate in was approached as a mutable collective process, each system could become accessible to multiple publics as their needs change and as the system, itself, evolves.


First, though, individuals must help to define their access needs and preferences so accessibility can be realized as an open cultural practice through which the participant can claim the support that will empower them to thrive.


While in residence through the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary, I plan to support community members in developing the metrics for an independent accessibility audit of the Victoria and Albert Museum—where the terms of the audit are based in their very subjective perceptions regarding what is accessible. It is my hope that the intervention will establish an open working space dedicated to the consideration of our agency in public and institutional settings, and what actions we must take in order to explode normalcy and realize our potential as embodied learners. As an open-sourcing of their own access, participants will highlight the opportunities for learning and knowing that come available through the fact of the body. The project will culminate in a series of actions that will address, claim, interrupt, antagonize and heal the space between ourselves and the systems that we choose to participate in—a gesture that will contribute to a productive understanding of accessibility.


I want to express my deepest thanks to the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary decisions committee for the tremendous support that they have shown in selecting me as their 2014 award recipient. I am deeply moved by the kindness and generosity that this unique opportunity represents. I look forward to my time in residence in early 2015."