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New York Times staff members put their heads together with disability advocates to recommend movies, books, TV shows, dance and art that capture disability experiences.


Movies

Xian Horn, a disability advocate and selection committee member for ReelAbilities, a film festival showcasing people with disabilities, recommends these films with the idea in mind that film “can be a mirror in documenting every area of advocacy.

‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ (2019) Zak, a boy with Down syndrome who has no family and lives in a senior facility escapes to pursue his dream of becoming a wrestler. This movie has star power in the likes of Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Shia LaBeouf and Thomas Haden Church. But it really is about the debut of Zack Gottsagen, “a disarming performer who creates a sweet and funny character” as Zak, Glenn Kenny wrote in his review in The New York Times.

‘Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution’ (2020) Youth from an upstate New York summer camp called Camp Jened go on to lead the historic 504 Sit-in demonstration as adults. “No matter how fondly you recall your time at sleepaway camp,” Ben Kenigsberg wrote in his review in The Times, “chances are your experiences weren’t as formative as the ones recounted in ‘Crip Camp.’”

‘Off the Rails’ (2016) Darius McCollum’s love of mass transit has made him the subject of newspaper headlines for the many joy rides he has taken on New York City buses and subway trains. But the subtext of this documentary, Neil Genzlinger wrote in The Times, is “a criminal justice system that has no way to deal with an offender like Mr. McCollum, who has Asperger’s syndrome, other than to keep throwing him in prison.”

‘The Drummer and The Keeper’ (2017)

A bipolar drummer and a teenager with Asperger’s make music together in a film that “is airy, funny and at home to optimism,” Donald Clarke wrote in The Irish Times. “But it also remains honest about its subjects.”


TV Shows

‘Speechless’

A remarkably nuanced 3-D view of JJ DiMeo (Micah Fowler), a sarcastic and at times mischievous teenager with cerebral palsy. “That he’s a flawed kid with a flawed family in a reasonably funny sitcom is what makes ‘Speechless’ good, rather than simply worthy,” James Poniewozik wrote in his 2016 review in The Times.


Special

Ryan O’Connell plays Ryan Hayes, who is gay and has cerebral palsy and is navigating his first internship as well as a budding sex life.


‘Raising Dion’

Sammi Haney, who has osteogenesis imperfecta, plays the best friend to Dion, a boy who at one point uses his superpowers to lift her from her motorized wheelchair.


Musicians


Gaelynn Lea A folk artist and disability rights advocate, Lea was the winner of NPR Music’s 2016 Tiny Desk Contest for her original song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun.” She told NPR that it is about “how love might be a struggle now, but that it’s worth hanging on.”

Velvet Crayon The persona of Erik Paluszak, who says his “genre is in a constant state of flux” but can best be described as psychedelic alt rock.

Lachi A dance pop recording artist and performer with a visual impairment whose songs focus on empowerment. “People tend to forget or not notice my disability, which is good because I’m not looking for pity parties,” she told Flame magazine last year.

Tabi A singer-songwriter with muscular dystrophy, Tabi blends R&B, pop, rock, folk, jazz, blues, country and dance. She said on her website that she started singing for fun as a way to exercise her lungs and diaphragm, but her love of music became a career.


Books


‘The Oracle Code’

A graphic novel by Marieke Nijkamp and Manuel Preitano reimagines the origin story of DC Comic’s Barbara “Oracle” Gordon as a paraplegic young hacker reluctantly drawn into solving a mystery at her rehab facility.


‘Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century’

A nonfiction anthology of essays edited by the disability activist Alice Wong “gives a glimpse into the rich complexity of the disabled experience,” the publisher, Penguin Random House, said on its website.


‘If You Really Love Me, Throw Me Off the Mountain’

In a memoir slated to be published in September, Erin Clark describes her journey from growing up a young, disabled girl in Northern Ontario to becoming an artist, writer and paraglider living in Spain.


‘Golem Girl’

In a memoir to be published this fall, Riva Lehrer explores growing up with spina bifida in the 1960s and ’70s with well-meaning parents whose attempts to “fix” her backfired until she found her own sense of empowerment.


Instagram


SICK Magazine

Written and edited by disabled people for disabled people, the magazine says on its website that it looks to “increase representation of sick and disabled people in publishing and the arts, and to challenge the harmful stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding disability.”


Lutte Collective

The account bills itself as a space for disabled and chronically ill artists, and its website provides features each month on different artists.


Hayley Cranberry

A pottery and clothing designer whose work, according to her website, examines “physical bodily pain, the cost of being disabled in our society, and the associated emotional impact from both.”


Comedians


Josh Blue

Blue puts his self-deprecating wit on display in shows like “Sticky Change” on Amazon Prime Video, and on tour. His confrontational stance with his cerebral palsy reflects a sentiment common among many disabled people: that they should not be defined by disability.


Zach Anner

Anner, who has cerebral palsy — “the sexiest of palsies” — muses on life on his YouTube channel. Anner gained fame when he won the reality competition “Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star,” and became the host of the travel show “Rollin’ With Zach.”


Danielle Perez

Perez, who describes herself on her website as “the woman in a wheelchair, with no feet, who won a treadmill on ‘The Price Is Right,’” jokes about race, dating and life as an amputee.


Artists


Eugenie Lee Using virtual reality and video game-related work, Lee recreates life with complex regional pain syndrome, a pain-related chronic illness, in a way others might experience it. She says that persistent pain “can have a devastating effect on both the lives of people living with it and those around them.”

Sugandha Gupta

Gupta is a multisensory textile artist whose work “everyone can access through the engagement of all their senses,” including touch, smell, sound and sight.


Christine Sun Kim Kim, who is Deaf, is a sound artist whose work was in the Whitney Biennial last year. She performed in American Sign Language at the Super Bowl — and then wrote about the frustration of having the cameras shift away from her. “Why have a sign language performance that is not accessible to anyone who would like to see it?”

Andy Slater For his digital album “Unseen Reheard,” Slater, who is blind, was inspired by “an obscure weird science theory” that assumes that blind people can hear “transdimensionally” by being in tune with the subharmonics of the universe.


Kinetic Light

This dance collaborative “creates and performs at the nexus of access, technology, disability, dance, and race.” It was founded in 2016 under the direction and artistic leadership of Alice Sheppard, and is a project-based ensemble of four disabled artists: Sheppard, Jerron Herman, Laurel Lawson and Michael Maag.


Heidi Latsky

This company “disrupts space, dismantles normal, and redefines beauty and virtuosity through innovative performance and discourse,” according to its mission statement.

Sarah Bahr and Katherine McMahan contributed research.


In Boston, the intersection of Washington and State Streets is sacred ground. In Sanford, Florida, the intersection of Retreat View Circle and Twin Trees Lane is sacred ground. In Minneapolis, the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South is sacred ground.

Separated by time and distance but intrinsically linked through the insidious nature of white supremacy in the United States, these intersections are markers of the country’s marriage of Black blood and death. Woven into the social consciousness, the killings of Crispus Attucks, Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd ushered in reckonings with capitalist industries that built empires on the accumulation of wealth and power from slavery. America’s principles of ownership and exclusion are intrinsic to the construction of the art industry’s capitalist value system, where those in power can make history through buying and selling. As the art world’s power brokers attempt to rectify their wrongs and plead for salvation from those who question the predominantly white, upper-class makeup of their ranks, the question of what, exactly, it would take to create more diversity and equity in the U.S. art world could be refined into: “What systemic barriers have been implemented to ensure diversity and equity do not thrive in the art world?”

It’s a world largely sustained by a small group of influential, predominantly white people who have shaped art institutions in the United States. Untouched by the nation’s civil rights legislation, which attempted to correct centuries of racialized discrimination, the mainstream art world fought against pioneering Black dealers like Alonzo and Dale Davis—founders of Los Angeles’s Brockman Gallery—and Linda Goode Bryant, who created New York’s Just Above Midtown. Bryant understood her gallery’s position in the art world’s power structures all too well, describing a “hostile environment for Black folks” in a 2018 interview with T Magazine. She positioned her gallery as an entry point into the industry’s typically closed circuit, from which artists of color were historically excluded. Bryant, the Davis brothers, and others from their generation achieved success in the face of adversity and acquired a “seat at the table” in the art world.

In recent years, the ramifications of the Black Lives Matter movement have been felt by the country’s largest institutions. In response, a minority of members and stakeholders in the art world have pledged to increase diversity through initiatives like allocating funds to acquire work by Black artists, removing works by white artists from museum galleries in favor of more work by women and artists of color, hiring consultant curators, and making efforts to draw attention to the generations of artists who were ignored in favor of maintaining an overwhelmingly white canon. The overall numbers of Black museum curators and educators have increased, but in 2018, 80 percent of museum leadership positions were still occupied by white people, according to a survey published by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“Institutions have released [Black Lives Matter] statements, but time will tell whether they were genuine or performative,” said Dawn Okoro, a Nigerian-born artist based in Austin, Texas. “The majority of support [for my work] has been from Black institutions like the George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, Black artists, and Black curators as well. It’s important for them to have positions in leadership, because there aren’t many right now.”

Okoro, who previously studied law, has forged their path in a predominantly white cisgender male space. For their recent traveling exhibition, “Punk Noir,” they depicted Black artists, musicians, and writers who represent the punk spirit of truthfulness and resistance. Okoro’s work encourages other Black artists to remain authentic to themselves in an industry that too often constrains them with self-doubt and isolation, a sentiment they felt at their first show in Austin. Subsequently, the George Washington Carver Museum gave them space for their art to be shown and appreciated. “I created a space where I felt that I belonged,” Okoro said, “a space where others that felt left out and feel like they belonged as well.”

Unlike their white-owned and -led counterparts, Black-owned galleries and Black-run institutions operate as educational and communal spaces for audiences of color who have historically been denied the formal education and training considered essential to meaningfully engage with art. Through newsletters, art talks, Facebook groups, and a partnership with Spelman College, September Gray is adamant about creating a space that is welcoming—not intimidating—at her eponymous Atlanta gallery.

“[Galleries] are part of that community and members should understand what you do instead of asking about admissions costs and dress codes,” Gray said. “For years, Black galleries have had conversations about representation in cultural institutions and museums, and the need for the boards, trustees, and people that have money to reflect society and our community, instead of one or two Black [members] to check the [diversity] box.”


The limitations of diversity and equity initiatives, and gestures toward inclusion, are evident in the treatment of Black people within art institutions. In 2014, Carrie Mae Weems became the first Black woman to have a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. In 2017, Solange Knowles performed “An Ode To,” an interdisciplinary installation and performance of her Grammy Award–winning album A Seat at the Table in the museum’s rotunda. In 2019, as the Guggenheim marked its 60th anniversary, Chaédria LaBouvier curated “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story”—making her the first Black woman to curate an exhibition at the museum.

Last month, LaBouvier described her time at the institution as the “most racist professional experience of my life” on Twitter, after the museum’s official account tweeted a message of solidarity with the family of George Floyd for #BlackoutTuesday. LaBouvier, a scholar of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work, detailed her interactions with Nancy Spector, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator, who attempted to co-opt LaBouvier’s scholarship, threatened to withhold payment, and declined requests from press who sought to cover the exhibition, according to LaBouvier. In a statement to Essence, the Guggenheim said: “The exhibition was one of the first programmatic efforts for the museum to confront its own role in our nation’s patterns of injustice, an effort that we are continuing to work on with a critical examination of inherent bias in both the workplace and in art history.” The Guggenheim has since hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation into its practices during LaBouvier’s exhibition.

In late May, Taylor Brandon, a former marketing associate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, criticized her former employer for an Instagram post made in response to the uprisings following George Floyd’s killing. The post featured Glenn Ligon’s painting We’re Black and Strong (I) (1996) accompanied by a quote from the artist: “Why do we need to raise our hands in that symbolic space again and again and again to be present in this country?” Brandon wrote: “Using black artist/art to make a statement that needs to come from the institution. You don’t only get to amplify black artists during a surge of black mourning and pain. Having black people on your homepage/feed is not enough.” The museum quickly deleted the comment.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Brandon explained her comment. “Ever since I started working at SFMOMA, I have watched leadership tokenize their non-white employees all while trying to silence them by implying that their concerns, frustrations, and experiences are not real,” she said. “The events that transpired regarding the Instagram post highlights leadership’s inability to recognize the racism within museums amongst employees and donors.” In recent weeks, five senior leaders have resigned from SFMOMA amid a growing chorus of accusations of institutional racism.

In the midst of this cultural and political moment, Black artists, curators, and gallerists are working against the art world’s systemic racism and tokenism, which aim to offer one or two individuals a “seat at the table” under the guise of diversity and equity. They are working to broaden the art world into an inclusionary space where Blackness is not regulated to themed exhibitions or Black History Month programming, where their presence is normalized, and where racialized experience is not presented as monolithic, but highlighted for its rich plurality.


A growing cohort of Black artists and Black art dealers—some of whom have had or worked with galleries for years, others of whom organize projects on a roving basis—is filling out a picture of what a more inclusionary art world might resemble. Gallerists like September Gray, Lewis Long of Long Gallery Harlem, and Kendra Jayne Patrick of New York’s itinerant Kendra Jayne Patrick Gallery, as well as fine artists Okoro and Gianni Lee, are following the trail blazed decades ago by Bryant and the Davis brothers. This new generation is not classified by age or region, but unified through a collective belief that their contributions to contemporary art cannot be regulated to one seat at the table—that the complexity of Black art cannot be constricted.


“The Black gallerist’s gaze is not only valuable as applied to Black art, but...provides an incomparable perspective on all American art and symbolism.”

Encouraged by their peers, Long and Gray opened their respective galleries to provide platforms for emerging artists who lack the space to show, and to offer adequate representation for established artists to grow their practices and have their work acquired by institutions and major private collections. “Over time, I deliberately focused on providing opportunity to under-represented aspiring artists to be shown in full splendor at their first New York show,” Long said. “Full splendor,” for Long, includes full print catalogs, critical reviews in the press, and “placement of work with collectors and institutions who wouldn’t flip the work.”

Too often, the commodification of Black artists and tokenization of Black galleries reduces their multidimensionality to a monolith. “It seems that many art viewers don’t expect diverse, complex, and ambitious programming if the gallerist herself is Black,” Jayne Patrick said. “But my program, especially in today’s strained cultural climate, directly supports the extension of American democracy to its Black citizens because it unites a racially and formally diverse group of artists under the banner of the 21st-century radical. The artists, exhibitions, and ideas on view together communicate that the Black gallerist’s gaze is not only valuable as applied to Black art, but that it provides an incomparable perspective on all American art and symbolism.”


In lieu of taking responsibility for their roles in systemic violence and exclusion, too many galleries and institutions highlight the work of Black artists and their supporters in strategic moments to signal diversity or solidarity with struggles for Black lives. Yet their efforts of performative activism are often underwritten by individuals in positions of power (collectors, trustees, board members) whose intergenerational wealth benefited from centuries of slave labor. In order for contemporary art to evolve, those in power must address their flagrant and longstanding disregard for Black culture, Black galleries, and Black lives. They must also understand that Black artists are not solely making work aligned with the trends of a given political moment.

It’s not the responsibility of Black professionals in the arts to educate those in positions of power and wealth about the importance of representation.

“If you don’t represent what they feel as though you should represent, you’re no longer offered an invitation to the room or seat at the table,” said the artist Gianni Lee. “If you don’t speak their language, they won’t let you in.”

Lee’s belief in the accessibility of art is evidenced by his signature skeleton figures, which he has created on the streets of New York City and his hometown of Philadelphia, and in collaborations with Audi, Nike, Levi’s, Gucci, and more. Following the cancellations of physical exhibitions due to COVID-19, Lee elected to create an online gallery, Weaponize Gallery, for Black artists to showcase the spectrum of Blackness.

Black artists, curators, and gallery owners cannot express the wholeness of their selves and sustainably contribute to the art world without a multi-pronged approach that, instead of focusing on their trauma, centers on their comfort and contributions to contemporary art. That’s going to require sustained, systemic change: for the art press’s coverage of Black dealers to highlight their love of art instead of their small numbers; for institutions to train and fund opportunities for Black professionals in the arts; for museums to implement cross-cultural programming based on the demographics of their communities; for Black artists to be sustainably supported and not only commissioned for #BlackLivesMatter campaigns.

It’s not the responsibility of Black professionals in the arts to educate those in positions of power and wealth about the importance of representation. It’s the duty of those with power to be aware of the ramifications of bias, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy in order to redistribute resources to ensure long-term diversity and equity in the art world.


-Taylor Crumpton, Artsy