Twitter RSS

Celebrating ADA: Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council

Posted on

GPAC_SIG_FACEBOOKThe second  story in our series is a profile of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, the primary arts advocacy and service organization in the Pittsburgh region and a local grantmaker. We spoke with Anne Mulgrave, Manager of Grants and Accessibility, to learn about GPAC’s work to increase the accessibility of arts and culture to those with disabilities.


This year, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). With the ADA, our nation committed itself to eliminating discrimination against people with disabilities.In line with our work to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion for all people, the ADA represents a commitment to ensuring opportunity and access for people with disabilities. In philanthropy, we have the opportunity to ensure that people with disabilities are represented both in the decision-making process and the outcomes of our work.As we mark the anniversary of the ADA in July, we will be showcasing stories that highlight the work being done in philanthropy to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion for all.

D5:   GPAC is well-known in the Pittsburgh community for its work to increase the accessibility of arts and culture to those with disabilities.  How did you become involved in this work? Why was it important to GPAC to do this work?

Mulgrave:   In 2010, GPAC was approached by the FISA Foundation to increase access to the arts to those with disabilities. As the primary arts service organization in the Pittsburgh area, GPAC had the relationships with the arts community that made it logical for us to undertake this field-wide effort. Our first step was to conduct a survey of GPAC members in which we asked, “Where are you with accessibility?” What we learned was that organizations were interested in the topic of accessibility, but for most it wasn’t a priority. They mentioned capacity issues and not knowing where to begin as things that were holding them back.

GPAC saw it as their mission to make it a priority. We put goals related to accessibility in our own strategic plan and started a pilot program for organizations in our region. In 2011, we began to bring together people with disabilities with staff from arts organizations for Lunch and Learns to discuss what each needed – what those with disabilities needed in order to access the arts, and what arts organizations needed to have in order to become more accessible. More and more people started coming to these gatherings and learning from each other. Arts organizations started to see barriers that they didn’t know were there. The great thing about arts organizations is that they’re full of people who are creative problem-solvers. They came to this work with the attitude that problems can be solved.

Since 2010, there has been remarkable growth in organizations that have jumped on board with access. Today there is positive peer pressure where the question is, “Who’s NOT doing it?” No one wants to be the odd man out. People are pushing from the inside up, and positive peer pressure works at the leader level.

D5:     Have your efforts to build the capacity of Pittsburgh-area arts organizations had an impact on your own work as a grantmaker?  If so, in what specific ways?

Mulgrave:   I manage three grants streams at GPAC, two of which are specifically designed to increase access to the arts. Since I’ve been at GPAC I’ve started to do two things:  I provide technical support to grantees before they submit proposals. A lot of it is nuts and bolts advice, but I also take the opportunity to ask them questions about access to people with disabilities. Second, the grant review panels now include people with disabilities. One member is blind and the applications were not accessible to people who are blind, so we had to make changes.  And we were able to show that a person who is blind is a good person to have serve on the panel.  We also have panel members with hearing loss.

GPAC now also tracks grants that serve people with disabilities.   We also track artists with disabilities who receive Artist grants – if they choose to disclose.  We’ve also changed the Artist grants review panel composition to include people with disabilities. A lot of trust has been built between GPAC and the disability community.

As my own expertise grows, I’m able to educate other grantmakers. Already I’ve done some training for grantees of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. I’ve also provided technical assistance for our Regional Asset District which gives away $80 million each year.  They have started to include questions about accessibility in their application process. GPAC has provided technical assistance on things like, “How do you ask these questions?”

Lots of people outside of the arts are now coming to the GPAC workshops.

Student from Pressley Ridge, signing-1

GPAC workshop participant

D5:    Do you have any examples or stories of how access to arts and culture was increased and how someone benefited?

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust owns the seven biggest arts venues in the city and they decided to make them all accessible programmatically. They focused on making sure that people with disabilities were treated well, made a special effort to ensure that their online ticketing was accessible, and developed the capacity to offer regular programmatic accommodations.

Their first big undertaking was to host a sensory-friendly performance of the Lion King that would be accessible to people with autism spectrum disorders. It was a really big deal! With the help of lots of fundraising, all tickets were sold at discount rate. In addition to changes in the music and lighting, the theater installed television monitors and created quiet spaces with special carpet for audience members if they became overwhelmed. Staff were trained and performers were prepared to expect more vocalizing in the audience. Also, the website for the performance had more details than usual so that the audience would know what to expect, down to the parking set-up.

Families were really moved – they said they had never felt so welcome.  And it had a really big impact on the people with ASD, mostly kids.  The idea is that they can begin to transition to regular performances – a step toward social inclusion.

Following the Lion King performance, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater went on to do sensory performances of the Nutcracker and Beauty and the Beast.  Coming up in June, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is doing its first sensory-friendly performance. The venue staff had been trained in their first experience with Lion King – they built their capacity.

D5:     GPAC started its inclusion work with the disability community, and has since broadened its diversity, equity, and inclusion focus to address racial equity.  What does this work look like at GPAC?

Mulgrave:   The accessibility work gave a sense of what’s possible for an organization like GPAC.  We saw that there are also equity barriers in a grantmaking process – the digital divide, outreach to all communities not being equal, etc. We applied our work to equity knowing it would be harder, tackling deep issues that are more divisive. We can’t equate the issues, but the process can be much the same.

For example, our Artist Opportunity Grants program gives away $45,000 – a relatively small amount. We receive tons of applications – 60 or more. I started going out to meet with artists and I was asked by many artists of color why so much grant money went to cover travel expenses. I realized that wasn’t the real question; they really wanted to say, “That’s not the type of support I need.”  Realizing that we didn’t understand what they needed led us to change our outreach. We changed the venue of workshops from our offices to places in the communities to be more accessible. And we started to spend more time just meeting people. We also changed the composition of grants panel so that it consists entirely of artists of color. Our grants data show that what’s happening is that grants mirror the applications coming in in terms of ethnicity.  And the discussion is different – it’s more open about things like cultural appropriation.

Also, GPAC hosts the Pittsburgh Coalition for Racial Equity in the Arts which offers workshops and town hall meetings on fair trade, racial justice, etc., that are run by a racial equity consultant. Venues are in communities of color. Discussions are open and honest.

D5:      What’s next for GPAC?  What are your plans for continuing to advance this work?

Mulgrave:   With the accessibility work, we’re at a point where organizations have a need for in-depth technical support. For example, the City of Asylum provides homes for refugees who are writers. They’ve commissioned a director from France to create a theater piece on the impact of having a disability on a person’s financial health and well-being. I provided lots of technical support on how to produce such a thing.

And we have a new program – the Access Microfund – that provides support for organizations to provide accommodations.

D5:       What’s your vision for people with disabilities in the Pittsburgh area through this work?

Mulgrave:   Art changes the world. If you’re going to the Civic Light Opera every week and there’s an ASL interpreter, at first it’s a distraction, then its absence is noted.  It changes people’s attitudes toward disabilities. It becomes the norm.

D5:     This year is the 25th anniversary of the ADA.  Is GPAC marking this milestone in a special way?

Mulgrave:   It’s a mark of our success that we don’t have to do anything.  The City of Asylum performance at the beginning of June, the Symphony at the end of June.  In between, the Three Rivers Arts festival is including people with disabilities.  People are doing it!  Last year GPAC brought in people with disabilities to every Art Ability Access workshop in 2014. The impact in 2015 has been a lot of interest in artists with disabilities that’s coming out organically.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *