Over the past year, more and more New York City arts institutions, driven by a powerful movement of artists and advocates, have begun to address the historic exclusion of people with disabilities as artists, performers, cultural workers and audience members. And that means Gregg Mozgala is busy.
Mozgala is an actor, advocate and founder and artistic director of The Apothetae, a theater company that features work created by and for artists with disabilities whose work explores the “disability experience.”
In recent months, Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy, has been called on to help the Yale School of Drama update its infrastructure and resources after the school accepted its first student with cerebral palsy. He has worked closely with Queens Theatre to prepare the “Theatre For All Short Play Readings” series, which premieres Nov. 18, and he has focused on his own company’s work developing a trilogy of plays based on the myth of Hephaestus, the Greek God of fire and the only god with a disability in the pantheon.
Along the way, Mozgala has made sure to document the process as a resource for other institutions and organizations to follow.
“The failure of inclusion is the fear and anxiety of working with people with disabilities,” Mozgala says. “A lot of this work is so new, so to make the process more visible we need to document it and show a model.”
Mozgala’s effort is part of a citywide mission to foster equity in the arts community. It is fueled by the work of artists and advocates with disabilities who compelled the Department of Cultural Affairs to emphasize opportunities for people with disabilities in the 2017 CreateNYC cultural plan, a guide for making the art community more inclusive. The plan specifically outlines strategies to topple “historic barriers of access and inclusion for artists and individuals with disabilities as artists and audiences.”
(This story uses both “disabled artists” and “artists with disabilities” interchangeably. While the CreateNYC plan frequently references “people with disabilities,” several of the artists interviewed by City Limits story said they prefer the term “disabled person,” “disabled artist” or “disability artistry.”)
About 15 months after the DCLA introduced the plan, artists with disabilities and their advocates say CreateNYC has uplifted the community’s long-standing efforts to gain recognition and opportunities. They point to specific measures, like a disability artistry grant and more borough-based art council funding, as well as efforts by individual institutions to feature work by artists with disabilities.
They also say the city must make its commitments to funding disability artistry permanent and more deliberate.
“The cultural plan is an aspirational document,” says Simi Linton, co-director of DANT, an advocacy group formerly known as the Disability/Arts/NYC Task Force. “There is certainly evidence that they want to do the right thing and want to make [an ongoing] commitment. There are many promises in the document, but we don’t know what’s in the pipeline.”
An ‘important first step’
In August, the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) announced the 22 recipients of the first-ever CreateNYC Disability Forward Fund, a pilot $640,000 grant that funds programs or initiatives to engage artists, cultural workers and audience members with disabilities at 22 arts organizations around the city. Each individual grantee received between $10,000 and $35,000.
“During the CreateNYC public engagement process, advocates from the diverse disability communities of NYC made their voices heard loud and clear, expanding our understanding of the significant barriers to participation faced by artists, cultural workers, and audiences with disabilities,” said DCLA Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl in a statement announcing the grant recipients. “The CreateNYC Disability Forward Fund is a direct effort to address these barriers. It’s an opportunity for us to build on the great work already being done in this area by NYC’s cultural organizations, and a chance for us to encourage new, creative approaches toward a more meaningful inclusion of those with disabilities in all aspects of cultural life.”
Applications were introduced in May and the pilot program fulfilled a specific CreateNYC commitment to “create a new fund to support people with disabilities as cultural workers, artists, and audiences.”
Mozgala says the fund was an “important first step” for the city. The Queens Theatre, where Mozgala is preparing for the Theatre for All Short Play Readings, was one of of the grant recipients.
Manhattan-based Gibney Dance received a grant to fund its annual five-day boot camp for artists and cultural workers from various organizations and institutions. The program educates attendees about how to include and accommodate artists, workers and audience members with disabilities.
The workshop also fosters a strong network among attendees who have begun implementing what they learned at their own institutions, including major sites like the art spaces at Lincoln Center, says Kara Gilmour, the senior director of Community Action, Training, and Artist Services at Gibney Dance.
“It is so fascinating how well it worked and how much we who went through the training together see each other as a community,” Gilmour says. “Artists and administrations are working to share best practices, context and an understanding of the history and of the groundwork that needs to be done.”
To Gilmour, the grant demonstrates that the city has begun putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to disability artistry.
“From my perspective as a grantee, it does show the commitment that this needs to be done yesterday,” Gilmour says. “We don’t have years to plan, we have years to make up for as we lay significant roadwork for future funds and support and actions.”
The Disability Forward Fund also awarded a grant to Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), which is using the money to expand its annual Playmakers Intensive, a weeklong program that unites actors with directors with disabilities and gives them rehearsal space to create a short play. The DCLA fund has enabled TBTB to afford more rehearsal time and to pay its participants, who are professional actors and directors.
Nicholas Viselli, the artistic director at TBTB, says that he has noticed significant progress in the three years since the city began listening to artists with disabilities during the CreateNYC development process.
For example, he says, more casting directors and companies now seek to hire artists with disabilities to play characters with disabilities.
“It’s sad when you think of how many plays, movies and TV shows would hire non-disabled people to play disabled roles [and] who were winning awards for it,” Viselli says.
Last year, artists with disabilities told City Limits that they were often cast as elderly characters because they use walkers or appear frail.
“Society sees us as fragile and innocent, very benevolent and pure people, but we have the same desires as everyone else,” said actor Ryan Haddad, who has cerebral palsy. “I am sexy and I am disabled and you’re going to have to reconcile that those things are not counterintuitive.”
Both Haddad and Viselli say the ultimate goal is for companies and audiences to cast artists with disabilities in roles not written specifically for characters with disabilities.
“As an actor, you want to be able to show you can do anything. An artist is an artist,” he says. “We need to reach the point where someone says, ‘I want that actor because they can play this character’ and it’s the artist who matters.”
“We’ll get there,” he adds. “We just have to keep pushing and pushing.”
A ‘real moment,’ despite uncertainty
DANT co-director Kevin Gotkin praised the city for devoting money specifically to artists with disabilities, but he says he worries that the pilot fund did not include ways to study and measure the implementation, which is important for sustainability and for motivating the city council to make funding permanent.
“The fund is great, but I’m concerned it will be a one-time thing and then they talk about it for ten years,” he says. “The story of what has happened so far is that these are great moves, but we’re waiting to celebrate in full.”
He says DCLA introduced the grant somewhat haphazardly by giving organizations just over three weeks to apply near the very end of the fiscal year. The short window and vague guidelines favored larger organizations with dedicated development staff and excluded many organizations and artists, he says.
During the CreateNYC development phase, DANT proposed a fund that would specifically cover expenses particular to disability artistry, like paying the care workers who may accompany an artist as they install an exhibition or the cost of American Sign Language interpretation for a performance. Such expenses can discourage organizations from working with disabled artists, Gotkin says.
“We really need ten funds supporting different kinds of disability artistry,” he says.
Nevertheless, the city’s emphasis has helped elevate a movement among people with disabilities who have long demanded recognition, he says.
“When DCLA says ‘We’re establishing this fund’ and every one of the 900 grantees get this email saying, ‘We really care,’ that makes organizations do introspective work and [realize] they need help and they need expertise,” Gotkin says. “A lot of the community feels that this a real moment.”
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