DisArt Festival: Why Grand Rapids will mount ‘the largest disability arts festival in America’
By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk | firstname.lastname@example.org
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Photographer Robert Andy Coombs, a prize winner during ArtPrize 2012 for a series of photographs exploring physical disabilities and sexuality, was permanently injured in a gymnastics accident that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
But Coombs didn’t let his disability stop his artistic pursuits.
DisArt Festival, a 15-day, multi-faceted celebration of arts, will be launched in downtown Grand Rapids in April to change perceptions about disabilities through art as well as to showcase the work of artists with disabilities.
Related: DisArt Festival coming in April: Grand Rapids launches event to change minds about disability
Coombs, a graduate of Kendall College of Art & Design, already is at work on a new series of photos for the festival of people with careers who also happen to be disabled in some way.
The show will challenge viewers when DisArt Festival opens April 10. It’s already a challenge for the photographer from Norway, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“Finding people – that’s the hard part,” Coombs said. “Being labeled ‘disabled,’ there’s still the stigma.”
Grand Rapids’ inaugural DisArt Festival will confront those issues head-on with an event that DisArt Festival director Chris Smit says will be “the largest disability arts festival in America.”
Organizers ranging from Arts in Motion and Disability Advocates of Kent County to Calvin College and Ferris State University unveiled plans for the city-wide festival scheduled for April 10 through April 25.
“Grand Rapids is a place where ideas come to play, ingenuity grows, and ideas take root,” said Smit, an associate professor of media studies at Calvin College who was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy and has used a wheelchair since childhood.
The centerpiece will be the U.S. premiere of an international art exhibition, “Art of the Lived Experience,” which debuted in October in London and Liverpool for the DaDa Festival in the United Kingdom.
The 16-week-long exhibition in the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Kendall College of Art and Design, and Urban Institute for Contemporary Art will include work in many media by 28 to 35 international artists including sculptor Tony Heaton and performance artist Simon Raven.
Seven additional works by American artists, including three newly commissioned works by American artists, all curated in the U.S. by Amanda Cachia, will be part of the exhibition in Grand Rapids.
Ruth Gould, executive director of the 30-year-old DaDaFest, which stands for “Disability and Deaf Arts,” offered the exhibition to organizers in Grand Rapids.
“We hope it’ll be the beginning of a long relationship for years to come,” said Gould, in a previously recorded video statement.
The $250,000 festival will be funded in part by two $50,000 grants, one from the National Endowment for the Arts, the other from the Wege Foundation.
Related: National Endowment for the Arts gives 30 grants in Michigan: See who and how much
About $125,000 has been raised so far, according to UICA executive director Miranda Krajniak.
The DisArt Festival is about art, but it’s also about culture building, part of a larger initiative that’ll be undertaken by the City of Grand Rapids, which will designate 2015 as the “Year of Arts + Access.”
“My hope is this will become one of a great list of festivals Grand Rapids is known for,” said Grand Rapids City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss.
But the DisArt Festival will be a much broader event with a film festival, a fashion show, and music and dance performances plus additional exhibitions in galleries in downtown Grand Rapids. Participating organizations will include ArtPrize, Arts in Motion, Calvin College and Disability Advocates of Kent County.
A film series at UICA will be organized by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder from George Washington University. Music and dance performances will be held in the Wealthy Theatre.
Fashion workshops and a runway fashion show of clothes created for disabled bodies.
“That’s a first for this town, and a lot of towns,” Smit said.
DisArt Festival plans to offer family-oriented, experiential learning opportunities downtown including art-making stations and school tours among other opportunities for young people to contemplate both creativity and disability.
“It’s a normal part of most of our everyday experiences,” Smit said.
Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk covers arts and entertainment for MLive and The Grand Rapids Press. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.