By Michelle Steen

Prior to March 2020, the digital reach of the Crocker's education programs was limited. Like other organizations around the world, the Crocker had to pivot to an online-only model during the lockdown, offering existing (and new) programs that connect people with art and each other, as we have always done.

One positive outcome of our collective switch to digital programming has been the chance to share an increased array of art and resources with a wider audience — especially those who don't typically visit museums due to physical or mental disability, lack of access to transportation, or simply feeling like they may not be comfortable or welcome.

For several years, the Crocker has actively worked to reduce those barriers through measures like our Art Access Initiative, which includes programs and resources for people living with disabilities. These programs promote general health and well-being through engagement with the arts and offer different access points to the Museum and its collections. Programs like Art Rx, Artful Meditation, and Art on the Spectrum all seek to meet different needs in the community.

Art on the Spectrum, 2018. Photo by George H. Young.

One of the programs we offered in person — and are now transforming into a digital experience for 2021 — is Art on the Spectrum. Designed for families with children who have autism, this quarterly program was previously structured as a morning of artistic exploration and play, where children could have fun and their caregivers could connect to resources in a welcoming environment. Starting an hour before the Museum opened to the public, Art on the Spectrum offered an important access point to families. Many of these families struggle to bring their children into a museum or similar environment, whether due to difficult experiences or judgement and misunderstanding from others when their child displayed certain behaviors.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. According to the CDC, about 1 in 54 children live with autism spectrum disorder. In addition to the well-known benefits for children of all developmental ages, engagement with the arts has been shown to improve outcomes for people with autism in multiple case studies and reviews. Knowing we need to better connect with this significant portion of the population, we designed an educational program specifically for this audience. It required thoughtful intention to create the high-quality interaction with the arts we strive to provide at the Crocker.

We never want the fear of being too loud, not “acting the right way”, or being ashamed to keep anyone from connecting with art and others.

During Art on the Spectrum — like many programs designed for children with autism — the motto is “No Apologies”. Everyone is welcome to explore art in whatever way works for them. We never want the fear of being too loud, not “acting the right way”, or being ashamed to keep anyone from connecting with art and others. We offer open-ended, supportive art-making with clay and print-making, sensory play stations with behavioral therapists, music therapy, a quiet space, and outdoor activities. Families are welcome to visit the galleries together with guided resources and maps if they choose. We also invite several community groups and organizations to participate and share their resources with caregivers. These include the groups below, which offer different but crucial resources to many people.

We also partnered with Capital Dance Project to host two versions of their Sensory Friendly Dance Performance, where children of all ages and abilities were welcomed to engage with the dancers for a joyous, inspiring experience.

Partners like SASSNA helped us to develop Art on the Spectrum three years ago; we tried to follow the disability rights movement principle of “nothing about us, without us”. (If you’re interested in learning more about the movement, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a great resource.) We consulted with families, caregivers, and several organizations who work with people who have autism. Instead of taking a traditional Crocker family program and simply inviting families with autism to join, we sought to craft the program around what community members said they wanted. This meant an ongoing process of conversation, feedback, collaboration, and modifications to listen to what families were saying, and doing our best to meet them where they needed it.

Sensory Friendly Dance Program, via Capital Dance Project. Photo by George H. Young.

Art on the Spectrum kicked off in 2018, and was held three times a year, serving more than 360 people before the Museum temporarily closed in March 2020. In April, we were able to offer online music therapy through Music to Grow On for some families who would have attended the program in person; we have exciting plans for a digital version of Art on the Spectrum in early 2021.

One of the goals of this program was to make the Museum feel more welcoming and accessible year-round for families living with disabilities — not just during Art on the Spectrum. Some of the measures we took to meet this goal included developing a social narrative to prepare families for a visit, offering a sensory bag at the admissions desk for check out, and increased training for staff and security. These efforts were just beginning to take hold, and we look forward to renewing them in new ways when we resume in-person programming.

We always recognize there is more work to do in making things truly accessible and inclusive at the Crocker. There are audiences we have yet to connect with, and new connections and programs we hope to create. Thanks to financial support, like the recent grant we received from the California Arts Council, a state agency and the National Arts and Disability Center at the University of California Los Angeles, along with the continued financial support of many members and donors, we have been able to offer services like closed captioning for digital programs and videos, and ASL tours.

We will continue efforts to improve access that we have started digitally, in addition to offering our in-person Art Access programs when we are able. All of this takes time, financial and staffing resources, and intentional planning. But it’s important work, and is part of the Crocker Education vision to create experiences in which people can connect, grow, and get inspired. Every day we are inspired by our community, and we hope to live up to this vision.

Top Image: Art on the Spectrum, 2018. Photo by George H. Young.

About the Author: Michelle Steen is the Manager of Public Programs at the Crocker, where she previously coordinated family and early childhood programs. She holds an MFA in figurative painting from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and joined the Crocker in 2015 after moving to Sacramento. She lives with her husband, one-year-old human and 12-year-old canine in East Tahoe Park.

This activity was supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Arts and Disability Center at the University of California Los Angeles. Any findings, opinions, or conclusions contained herein are not necessarily those of the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Arts and Disability Center.