The North Carolina Arts Council’s Investment in Accessibility

Kyesha Jennings

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Disability Pride

July is Disability Pride Month. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed on July 26, 1990, to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. Following this legislation, Boston held the first Disability Pride Day event, in July 1990. Since then, Disability Pride events have been celebrated in July in Los Angeles, New York City, San Antonio, and elsewhere. The list of participating cities continues to grow. "Disability Pride Month is an important reminder of the intersectionality of disabled people. Like anyone in the world, disabled people are multi-faceted human beings and should be allowed to celebrate their individuality," says Eileen Bagnall, executive director of Arts Access.

AmeriDisability, an online magazine, describes Disability Pride as "accepting and honoring each person's uniqueness and seeing it as a natural and beautiful part of human diversity," and connects this to the larger movement for disability justice. Although people experience their disabilities differently, a sense of community can help them cope, especially given ongoing systemic barriers and stigma. Disability justice movements advocate approaches to meet the needs of people with disabilities that take race, class, and gender into account.

The North Carolina Arts Council’s commitment to accessibility

Here at the North Carolina Arts Council, we work hard to ensure that meaningful arts experiences are available to all of the state’s citizens, including people with disabilities, patients and caregivers in healthcare settings, and older adults. The Arts Council ensures that all of our offerings are accessible. All of our grantees sign a contract certifying that they will comply with Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. We provide information on our Arts Accessibility Resources page not only to help our grantees and others to comply with these laws but also to raise awareness of these special constituencies and their needs.

Recently, as part of our efforts to advance diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, we created two funding categories (Arts Equity Project Grants and Spark the Arts Grants) that will support organizations whose work benefits traditionally underserved communities, including disability communities.

Accessibility in the arts

The North Carolina Arts Council provides funds to arts organizations for accessibility training. One of our main partners is Arts Access, Inc., a statewide nonprofit arts organization whose mission “is to enable North Carolinians with disabilities to have full access to arts programs and facilities, and to encourage them to participate fully in the rich cultural and artistic life throughout the state.” “The financial support that the Arts Council provides Arts Access is instrumental in the organization’s successes.  It has been exciting to watch how accessibility has become a core value for the work of the North Carolina Arts Council,” says Betsy Ludwig, former executive director of Arts Access. “The commitment is vital to the inclusion of disabled people, and it creates opportunities to make accessibility more widely practiced in creative spaces in towns and communities in all of North Carolina.”

The City of Raleigh Arts Commission helped to found the organization in 1984, and two Arts Commission members served on the first Arts Access board. In those days before the ADA, Arts Access lobbied for wheelchair access to local arts venues. Then, in the early 1990s, the organization began providing audio descriptions so that people who are blind or have low vision could experience performing and public arts more fully.

Today, one of Arts Access’s main goals is to educate arts organization staff on best practices for including people with disabilities. The organization’s website, social media, and newsletter offer a statewide platform where information related to arts and disability is shared. It also organizes statewide workshops on a wide range of accessibility topics. Consulting with organizations individually, Arts Access offers facility reviews, ADA accessibility plans, and customized training. 

Learning How to be Inclusive

This year, the North Carolina Arts Council awarded 20 Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disabilities (LEAD) scholarships, which fund professional development for arts administrators who are new to the field of arts accessibility and who are proactively developing inclusive arts programs and experiences for artists and audiences with disabilities in their communities. The grants will allow these administrators to attend this year’s LEAD conference, which the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (the LEAD program’s organizer) will hold in Raleigh. The grant recipients will also participate in a statewide arts accessibility learning cohort, hosted by the North Carolina Arts Council in collaboration with Arts Access. "Arts Access is very excited to have the opportunity to expand our network of accessibility coordinators statewide," says Bagnall. "We are looking forward to the accessibility initiatives each of the cohort members will create for their organizations." A series of cohort workshops and meetings began on July 20 and will continue through December 14.

Kathleen Collier, the Arts Council’s accessibility coordinator, shares Bagnall's excitement. “The program aims to provide the learning cohort with a strong foundation in accessibility best practices," she says. "We also want to encourage participants to go beyond ADA compliance and to truly integrate universal design in their arts programming and organizational culture.”

If your arts organization is interested in learning more about accessibility in the arts, check out our Arts Accessibility Resources. For additional assistance, please contact Kathleen Collier, Arts in Education Director and Accessibility Coordinator via email at Kathleen.Collier@ncdcr.gov

The Light Factory Photo Arts Center launches a mentorship program to invest in Black photographers

Story by Kyesha Jennings

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

When Titus Heagins, a documentary photographer and educator, decided he wanted to give back, he had no idea that a visit to the Light Factory Photo Arts Center in May 2021 would be the catalyst for an impactful mentorship program that he would design and facilitate. He visited the Light Factory to support a fellow photographer whose work was on exhibit. While there, Heagins had a conversation with Executive Director Kay Tuttle. Though neither Heagins nor Tuttle remembers exactly what they spoke about, the two describe the moment as a “nice conversation that was fun.” “I think we joked and laughed about a few things,” Heagins said. “And we talked seriously about photography.”

After traveling the world for well over twenty years documenting the lives of people who often are seen as “other,” Heagins found himself advocating for young Black photographers any chance he could. In the early stages of his career, he could not find a mentor who was interested in his work as a Black photographer. He had to look for ways around the barriers he faced on his own.

During their conversation, Tuttle mentioned wanting to start a mentorship program. She had been toying with the idea for quite some time, and Heagins was all ears. “For me, typically, I always bring up issues of African Americans in photography, and I feel that Kay heard me,” said Higgins.

“Titus is so giving. . . and nurturing. it was just. . . incredible,” Tuttle observed. 

Drawing from his breadth of knowledge, Heagins made a list of goals he wanted to accomplish. One was to inform the six mentees who would participate in the program about the difficulties they would encounter obtaining mainstream recognition. “Playing on those fields demands more than beautiful images. [It requires] heightened information about the overall body of work and would require more precise and interesting written and speaking presentations,” said Heagins. Another goal of Heagins was for the mentees to realize the financial reward photography can bring. Teaching them about the legacy of Black photographers who came before them, from Gordon Parks to Carrie Mae Weems and Augustus Washington was important, too. 

A conversation with the mentees

(L-R) Cheryse Terry, Titus Heagins, Cordrell Colbert, Jessica Dunston, Cheryse Terry, Jessica Dunston, All mentees photographed with The Light Factory Executive Director Kay Tuttle and Mentor Titus Heagins | Photos by Jon Strayhorn

Emerging photographer Cheryse Terry grew up on the west side of Charlotte and is a mother of three, a wife, and a collector. Her childhood home was destroyed by fire a few years after her own mother died, leaving Terry with only five pictures of her younger self. The loss sparked an interest in archival documentary work. “Because all visual or physical history of me being a child is now gone, it's important for me to make sure that I'm immortalizing people. Most of the work that I do is with the homeless. I know a lot of times they might not have access to cell phones or photography,” she says.

Noticing her growing passion for photography, a close friend told her about the Light Factory’s mentorship program. Having previously attended another friend’s artist talk there, she was only somewhat familiar with the organization. The Central Avenue building it occupies, however, was where she had attended TAPS, a specialized high-school program for teen mothers. “I had my first daughter when I was 15. The building that the Light Factory is in was “the pregnant school.” I went to school there when I was in ninth grade. Being back there 17 years later was full circle for me. Like, whoa! And not much has changed about it. The floors are the same. The structure of the building is still the same. I was very excited to be there,” said Terry. As a novice photographer, Terry was attracted by the abundance of resources the Light Factory offers. She was able to use its print studio and process photographic film in a darkroom for the first time ever, and learn from Heagins. “I really enjoyed my experience with Titus. We were able to go to him with general or specific questions and because of his tenure in the business, he had an answer,” Terry said.

The BLACK GAZE: Representation, Identity, and Expression was Terry’s debut exhibition. Searching for the perfect words, she described the experience as “absolutely beautiful,” repeating the phrase three times. Terry photographs people who experience homelessness and is intentional about capturing them in ways that are not exploitive. “A lot of times, we center ourselves in the lives of homeless people as if we're the standard and they should have what we have, but sometimes people are just comfortable with their life and it's not a negative thing. It's like that's their environment. That's what they're comfortable in,” Terry says. The protective feelings she has for her subjects is warming. Terry, in a matter-of-fact way, describes them as “her people,” following the communal, understanding kinship practiced in Black communities. As she reflects on her overall experience participating in the Light Factory’s mentorship program, she acknowledges how beneficial and life-changing the opportunity was. “It was definitely in alignment with what I wanted my photography journey to look like. It's a blessing that it found me. What's next is my ongoing journey on Beatties Ford Road, on the west side of Charlotte, documenting my people, documenting those that don't have the ability, the means, or the resources to document their lives. This is a lifelong project for me,” Terry said.  

Photos below by Cheryse Terry [@cheryseterry.img]


Originally from Raleigh, Jessica Dunston has always viewed herself as creative. She was introduced to the arts through writing poetry, short stories, and photography. With a B.S. degree in pharmaceutical sciences from Campbell University, over the past 10 years, Dunston’s career in the medical device industry has had an impressive trajectory. “I think I had always kind of thought that I was going to just do creative stuff on the side because I worked in the medical device pharma industry full time. My plan was to climb up that ladder and be creative when I could,” Dunston said. At the end of 2019, the day before Christmas, she decided that the traditional path of a 9-5 job in a corporate setting was no longer fulfilling. To be her authentic self, it was important that she express herself in creative mediums.

By February 2020, Dunston had purchased her first camera and her journey in photography began. The Light Factory’s mentorship program helped her home in on the ability to find purpose and tell stories through photography. “At the beginning of my photography [journey], . . . I focused on taking pictures that looked good to me. During the mentorship program, Titus really pushed us to use [photography] as a vehicle to tell stories. . . so that's really where I am right now. Wanting to tell stories, specifically Black American stories. . . We have very specific things within our communities and within our culture that are ours. That’s what I want to honor and tell the stories around,” Dunston said. For Dunston, the mentorship program, under Heagins’s guidance, catapulted her into a new understanding of the projects she desired to work on. The photos that are on exhibit at the Light Factory are a part of her Carolinas with Love photo project. The series centers on North Carolina- and South Carolina-rooted Black people and their relationships, whether mother-daughter, romantic, or platonic.

Photos below by Jessica Dunston [@fbvisualss]


Reflecting on the mentorship program, Tuttle said that the Light Factory, despite its 50-year history, struggled to attract photographers of color. “We grew to be very old and very white,” she said. The program gave the arts organization an opportunity to expand its audience and invest in emerging Black photographers by making its resources available and creating a welcoming environment. According to two of the mentees, the program succeeded.

“Resources are what stop people from getting into photography because it's not cheap. The printing, the darkroom aspect of it if you're developing film, buying the film--it is extremely expensive. And so having [Kay] opening up [The Light Factory’s] resources is important. And I think she also just realizes the importance of having a Black mentor, mentor us. She understands what is needed for [young emerging photographers] to thrive, and I appreciate that,” said Dunston. Everyone at the Light Factory did so much work under her direction to get us to this point. So, I'm just appreciative to have her and Titus in general.”

The Light Factory recently updated its mission and vision and rebranded itself and added the words Photo Arts Center to its name to attract diverse audiences. “We want the community to know that the resources are there for them,” said Tuttle. The center has a 44-inch printer, a print lab, a dark room, a lighting studio, and a lot of rental equipment. “We are putting film cameras in the hands of photographers and encouraging them to use [the cameras], while offering some guidance. We also try to make everything affordable so that there are no barriers for people to come and learn,” Tuttle added. “Everything was open to all the mentees at no cost.  They could use the facilities during the mentorship and, hopefully, beyond.”

The BLACK GAZE: Representation, Identity, and Expression features the work of emerging photographers Cheryse Terry, Jessica Dunston, DaRemen J., Gavin Boulware, Cordrell Colbert, and Phillip Loken. The exhibit will be on display at the Light Factory until February 28th.

The Light Factory Photo Arts Center is supported, in part, by the Infusion Fund and its generous donors, and by the N.C. Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Kyesha Jennings

Kyesha Jennings is the content director for the North Carolina Arts Council where as a part of the marketing and communications team, she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. An award-winning hip-hop scholar, Kyesha is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where her research primarily focuses on Black women writers, hip-hop feminism, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in both academic and non-academic outlets such as LifeHacker, HotNewHipHop, Vulture, Indy Week, CLTure, and Scalawag Magazine.

Penland's Historically Black Colleges and Universities Tour Encourages Students Of Color To Consider A Career In Craft

Story and Photos by Kyesha Jennings

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Yolanda Sommer was transitioning into her new role as Penland's Manager of Diversity Recruitment and Partnerships when Clay artist Sharif Bey gave her an enthusiastic suggestion, "he said, 'you know what I've been thinking. . .you know how [colleges] offer HBCU tours for high school students, and they bring them to their campuses, we need something like that for craft,'" remembered Sommer. Craft is often defined as a form of visual creativity. It is a constructive method that produces artforms for human use.

Located in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Penland School of Craft is an international craft education center that offers community programs, artist residences and workshops across craft disciplines from ceramics, textiles, shoemaking to glass blowing, and more. Additionally, the campus has a state-of-the-art gallery and visitors center. Inspired by her own personal experience including the desire to introduce all that Penland has to offer to students of color, immediately she was on board. Success in craft and design often relies on having access to cultural capital that gives students a foothold in the industry. Funding for equipment, studio space, housing, and additional training can cost anywhere from $5,000-$20,000, creating a gap to populations with limited resources. Not to mention, many people who are unfamiliar with Crafts as a discipline often view the art-making process as a hobby as opposed to a viable career path. 

Six months after Sommer and Bey's initial conversation, Penland hosted their first HBCU Craft School Tour. The number of students invited was capped at 12 to allow the institution to not only cover all travel-related costs but also comfortably host the students on campus in their dining, housing, and studio spaces. That year South Carolina State and Claflin University brought six students each to Penland to embark on a three-day immersive tour that introduced them to the craft school experience. They participated in a live hands-on demo, were exposed to working craft artists of color, and received guided support on applying to Penland's scholarships. While designing the program, Sommer was intentional about including competitive scholarships for HBCU students and faculty to attend Penland's craft workshops. "We knew that, for a lot of schools, for a lot of people in general, what generally stands in the way [of attending Penland] is money. Now, there are two scholarships for students who participate in the tour. One is partial and has a work-study component, the other is like a total full ride, [students] get tuition, room and board, in addition to money for travel, materials, and fees," Sommer said. 

After a successful first year, which left Sommer feeling like each night had been better than she could imagine, Penland began building relationships with North Carolina A&T State University and Savannah State University, but the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted all in-person plans. "When the pandemic hit, we scrambled to find something else that would work," Sommer said. And they did. Using technology in the most innovative ways possible, Sommer and her co-worker recorded video content to create a virtual tour experience and met with the students via zoom for two half days. The second year proved to be just as successful as year one. Out of the nine virtual participants, five applied for scholarships and came to Penland in the summer of 2021. "We're not just looking to increase the number of people of color who are in Art or in Craft at Penland, we want to increase the number of people in art and craft in the broader field," said Sommer. 

The success of Penland's new diversity initiative offers a glimpse of future possibilities for the field of Craft. Mentorship is an important component of the program. This year's mentors included Printmaker Althea Murphy-Prince, Craft artist and Metalsmith David Harper Clemmons, and Glass Artist Che' Rhodes. When reflecting on the importance of mentorship Clemmons shared the following, "So many working artists extended themselves to me, to help me get to where I am. And so, I know with teaching, part of it for me is that I feel an obligation to do the same thing for other people. Sort of creating that early exposure, sustain that exposure, and show them that it's a viable career". For Rhodes, an Associate Professor and Head of Studio Glass at the University of Louisville, when he received the invitation, he knew the experience exposing students of color to a place like Penland would be of value. For him, seeing the moment when something clicked or resonated with a student in person confirmed those feelings. 

As a graduate of Spelman College, one of two all-women HBCUs, located in Atlanta, Georgia, Murphy-Prince, a Printmaking Professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, spoke to the weekend's bigger mission--diversifying the field of craft, the field of fine arts more broadly speaking. "The mission of programs like this far exceeds just bringing students or bringing diverse individuals into a new place. It offers potential and access to expand the whole field of Fine Art. As we're talking to students, we're talking to students not just in terms of how great learning crafts are, or how great classes are, the type of exchange possible, but we're talking about building blocks of a path. A career that can expand in multiple different directions. We're talking about museum studies, we're talking about Fine Arts, we're talking about mainstream contemporary art Crafts worlds. We are talking about a broader field that we recognize the need for diversity in all of its aspects". There are established ideas about who can be a craftsperson, or what a craftsperson can do. Penland's HBCU Craft School Tour revises those ideas and is an initiative that will hopefully inspire others too as well. 

"My experience touring Penland was absolutely amazing! It was like Eden for artists. The energy there is so inspiring, wholesome, and flooded with creativity. I love ALL of the studios along with the architecture of each building," said Deion Franklin, a graduate of Claflin University. Franklin attended Penland's first inaugural HBCU Craft School Tour in 2019. This past summer he returned to Penland on scholarship to complete a ceramics summer workshop course titled "Clay as Canvas".

 "[The course] was exactly what I wanted to do to take my work to the next level. [Penland] is a place to go to for something new or to gain knowledge on a craft. When I joined the class, I had no experience with porcelain or a spin wheel. It was all new to me, I learned how to use the wheel in less than two days," shared Franklin. "The session helped me realize what I wanted to really pursue as a Ceramic Artist. The techniques I learned will definitely be applied to my work and I will be returning to Penland for future workshops and enrichment."


Kyesha Jennings

Kyesha Jennings is the content director for the North Carolina Arts Council where as a part of the marketing and communications team, she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. An award-winning hip-hop scholar, Kyesha is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where her research primarily focuses on Black women writers, hip-hop feminism, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in both academic and non-academic outlets such as LifeHacker, HotNewHipHop, Vulture, Indy Week, CLTure, and Scalawag Magazine.

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