Making space for the invisible: the hidden exclusion of disabled visitors in art galleries

Platforming work from marginalised artists is not revolutionary if there is no space for them to physically be in the room


By Mattie O'Callaghan


On entering exhibition and gallery spaces, the invisible is made visible. Eye-catching colours, sculptural forms, and incredible attention to detail welcome us as we enter into the room. We have the opportunity to learn about art from new perspectives as spaces aim to become more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’. Yet, in a practical sense, exhibitions are still exclusionary to many who are not able-bodied, have mental health conditions, struggles, and disabilities.


In recent years, big art institutions have come under increasing scrutiny about their failures to accommodate wheelchair users, as was seen in Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition at Tate Modern. Yet, so many disabilities and mental health conditions are also not considered in access requirements and galleries are failing to accommodate for them.


Your spiral view, 2002, installation view: Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland, 2002, photo: Jens Ziehe, courtesy of Boros Collection, Berlin © 2002 Olafur Eliasson

Even if you are able-bodied, going round a gallery or museum can be an exhausting process – with little to no seating, toilets miles away, crowded rooms, and sometimes being exposed to explicit and triggering images.


Having hypermobility syndrome is an invisible disability which affects my daily life with chronic pain, where I need frequent breaks to sit down in comfortable seating. I have to mentally and physically prepare if I am to go to a gallery, making sure I’ve done all my physio exercises and planned my route for breaks.


“The geographical concentration of exhibitions in London and the inaccessibility of public transport for those with disabilities means that it is difficult to even get to the buildings in the first place, let alone through them and being able to appreciate them.“

There have been so many times when I’ve been in a paid temporary exhibition where there is only one entrance and exit, and no seating. Long queues to get into exhibitions and only permitted entrance once means there is no chance to rest, to truly admire the art pieces. So many times I have rushed through the exhibitions, barely looking at the art at all as there was nowhere to sit down.


For those who struggle with anxiety or crowded places, galleries can be daunting places when busy. Alternatively, online exhibitions have been great for comfortable scrolling through artworks in pyjamas in bed, and these need to be continued to be shown online. The geographical concentration of exhibitions in London and the inaccessibility of public transport for those with disabilities means that it is difficult to even get to the buildings in the first place, let alone through them and being able to appreciate them.



Exhibitions also rarely have content notes or trigger warnings before you enter them. A content note should be placed online and on the wall before entering an exhibition, describing its themes and topics which may be triggering or upsetting for some people. Showing violent or traumatic experiences in art is important and powerful for revealing these issues, but if a visitor has PTSD or has also experienced this trauma, they need to be able to choose themselves whether they wish to enter the exhibition beforehand. Tate Britain have been recently criticised by The White Pube, as visitors had to pass an incredibly offensive, racist painting in order to enter the Steve McQueen exhibition, where there was no content note.


So what can be done and why is this a job for curators? The issue of the white cube model for galleries with no or uncomfortable seating is exclusionary, and platforming artworks from marginalised artists is not revolutionary if there is not a space for those usually excluded to physically be in the room.


“Curators need to actively integrate with their audience, to understand the ways in which different people interact with art differently.“

Curators need to actively integrate with their audience, to understand the ways in which different people interact with art differently. I suggest that galleries form advisory groups with people that have chronic pain and disabilities to ask them: what would help them enjoy art more? What would make them comfortable in a space?


For me, comfortable seating in every room is one of the most important things. It should also be possible to register as disabled and be able to exit and enter exhibition spaces more freely, allowing time for rest breaks and to visit quiet spaces in galleries. Content notes too must be inserted in exhibition descriptions and quiet times should be available. Finally, all exhibitions should also be available online via a video tour to increase access to those who cannot physically visit the spaces or pay for the entrance fees.



All of this needs more funding and investment in the arts, the UK government’s promised £1.57 billion for the creative industries should be used for increasing accessibility. Typically lack of funding has meant art institutions have to become money-making machines getting in as many visitors as possible, with little attention to their enjoyment and ability to experience the art however, during our current pandemic, several institutions including the Southbank Centre are expecting huge job losses due to having to reduce visitor numbers.


As galleries start to reopen, curators now more than ever have a responsibility to reconsider how money is being allocated within an exhibition. They need to make sure those usually invisible can appreciate the art and platform more artists with disabilities. As we continue to ease lockdown, physical barriers to artworks need to continue to be dismantled. We need to make visible the difficulties that non-able bodied people experience.


It's great that art can start these dialogues about feminism, racial discrimination, and the marginalisation of disabled people but, curators need to realise that you have to give people a seat in a room to really engage with the art. These seats are what make visible the real pain that so often goes unnoticed; which is just as radical and important as the artwork itself.