When macular degeneration forced Beverly Carter to retire from an accounting career she loved, she spent months sitting around her home, lamenting a lifestyle lost to failing vision. She slept too late, watched too much television and felt isolated.
On a breezy morning, an upbeat Carter stood at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in uptown Charlotte, gloved hands caressing a granite sculpture. The posted sign said “Please Do Not Touch,” but museum staffers welcomed her to feel every inch of the doughnut-shaped sculpture by Swiss artist Max Bill.
“This is really pretty art. I’m so glad to be here,” Carter said. “I’ve always had such a math brain; I’d never even been to an art museum before.”
The Bechtler started museum tours and classes for people with visual impairments as a pilot program three years ago and now holds them monthly. The museum works with Metrolina Association for the Blind, which provides transportation and other support. So far, the tours and art classes have had a total of 160 participants.
For most people, art is visual. Visitors with little to no vision “see” art at the Bechtler by feeling the textures of leaves on a clay disc, imagining the sweet-smelling flowers in a portrait or hearing a curator describe the vibrant colors of a sunset.
The Bechtler is one of a growing number of art venues that offer programs for people with low to no vision; others include the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Bechtler participants range from teenagers to retirees, from people who’ve been blind since birth to others who’ve lost their sight to disease and age. Some have spent their lives as art lovers and museum goers; others have discovered it because of the Bechtler program. One frequent guest brings a new friend each time.
“It’s even more than experiencing art − it’s also a social thing,” said Mykell Gates, school and community programs manager at the Bechtler. “Losing your vision can mean you’re often stuck at home.”
“We have put accessibility at the forefront of our outreach programs,” Gates said. “The participants become more involved in the community, see the museum as a safe place and often expand their involvement with the museum by attending concerts and film screenings.”
On a recent tour, curator Jennifer Edwards lifted a clear plastic case protecting a bronze sculpture that at first glance looked like a bug. She guided Beverly Taylor, 68, to touch and take it apart. The sculpture is actually a puzzle and, when pulled apart, reveals the tangled limbs of a man and woman. Its creator, Spanish sculptor Miguel Berrocal, named the piece “Romeo et Juliette.”
When Taylor put the pieces back together (not always an easy feat), others on the tour clapped.
“That was just awesome,” said Taylor, who has lost most of her vision to glaucoma. “He was just a genius for putting all this together. What was his name again?”
Edwards said working with the visually impaired has given her a different appreciation for the art work: “I love these tours, that they actually get to touch things − it’s so much fun,” she said.
Duke Energy has supported the Bechtler, its neighbor in uptown Charlotte, with significant donations over the years. Duke CEO Lynn Good serves on the Bechtler’s advisory board, and the company’s chief financial officer, Steve Young, is a board member.
“The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is extremely grateful for Duke Energy’s support,” Gates said. “The partnership continues to allow the museum to be an integral part of the community, providing innovative outreach to those who otherwise may not have access to the collection, exhibits and educational programming.”
That outreach mission includes programs for school kids, people with dementia and their caregivers, teenagers in a juvenile detention center and adult jail inmates.
Charlotte resident Mariea Harris, 37, has been blind since birth. She regularly goes on the Bechtler tours with her service dog, Tiki.
“I always loved art classes in school, and I’d been to museums but didn’t have the vision to appreciate it,” Harris said. “I wanted to be able to touch the art like everyone else can see it. It’s really awesome when you get to do that.”
Carter said the Bechtler program motivated her to get out and experience new things. She said she’d had enough of “my house swallowing me alive.”
“I’ve had such a good time here,” she said. “I’ve never tapped into my artistic side before. This is amazing. I’ll be taking some art classes here, and after that I want to try pottery.”
Bechtler Museum outreach
In addition to tours and classes for visually impaired people, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s outreach includes programs for intellectually disabled adults, school tours and art-making workshops for jail inmates.