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New festival to introduce area to disability art; works to build access, understanding

The DisArt Festival will be the largest festival on disability and art in the United States to date, says founder and director Chris Smit.
Underwriting support from:

/Eric Tank

/Eric Tank

The DisArt Festival officially announced its plans for a disability art festival housed at multiple locations last week, at the home of one of its main partners, Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (UICA). The festival, which will run from April 10 to 25, will be the largest event around disability and art in the United States to date, according to founder and director Chris Smit.

Along with UICA, local partners with the DisArt Festival include Kendall College of Art and Design and Ferris State University, Disability Advocates of Kent County, Arts in Motion, Indian Trails Camp, ArtPrize, Heartside Gallery, Downs Syndrome Association of West Michigan and the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), as well as the organization DaDaFest from Liverpool. DaDaFest has been offering access to disability art to cities in Europe for decades, and will be sending over selections of the "Art of the Lived Experiment" exhibition for DisArt.

The festival will also include activities such as a film series at UICA focusing on disability cinema, fashion workshops and a runway show, music and dance performances at Wealthy Theatre, documentary photography show at the (106) Gallery and additional art shows by both local and regional artists. 

"Accessibility is a huge theme and all the partners we're working with are really emphasizing accessibility in this town during the festival and hopefully beyond. Accessibility includes eliminating the physical and social barriers that might otherwise prevent inclusion," says Smit. 

Smit says support from local partners and the local government has been "exhuberant," including from Mayor George Heartwell and City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss.

"I have a personal commitment to this cause. As someone who was born with a bone disease and spent many years of my childhood in a wheelchair, I know what it's like to not have access," says Bliss. "I am excited, on behalf of the mayor and my colleagues on the City Commission, to formally announce the Year of Arts and Access in Grand Rapids for 2015. My hope is that this will become one of the many great festivals that our city is known for."

To help finance the event, the Wege Foundation has approved funds in a grant for the event, and the UICA has received a substantial grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

"We've received NEA money in the past, but a $50,000 artworks grant is a pretty substantial contribution. The average artworks grant to an organization of our size is around $25,000," says Miranda Krajniak, Executive Director of the UICA.

"In the past, while the NEA has supported disability arts, it has not done so with an exhuberance," says Smit. "In Liverpool, everybody was talking about it as a very monumental moment in disability arts."

The Community Media Center has been chosen as the official Media Partner for DisArt. Executive Director Tom Clinton says the partnership is a perfect match for the CMC’s mission and services.

"We exist to facilitate the use of media to allow the public, and particularly individuals whose voices are missing from mainstream media, to share their stories with the community," says Clinton. "The DisArt Festival is going to do exactly that for the disabled community in Grand Rapids, and we are hoping that through our media platforms the Festival organizers will be able to disseminate those stories more broadly and effectively."

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