Making masterpieces visible
2007 graduate curates a shared experience for all museum patrons
Visitors to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Forth Worth, Texas, are often drawn to the museum’s impressive collection of paintings depicting rugged cowboys and landscapes of the Wild American West including works by Charlie Russell, Frederic Remington, George O’Keeffe, and Winslow Homer.
Shortly after beginning her work as interpretation manager in the museum’s education department, Peggy Sell, ’07, realized the majority of the artwork was not accessible to all of the museum’s patrons. There were limited resources and methods through which to engage visitors with low to no vision, a growing visitor base in the Forth Worth area.
So Sell, who has always had a passion for advocating for those with disabilities, started a program to make art accessible for all.
The program, called Close Encounters, is designed for people of all ages and features opportunities for patrons with low to no vision—and their guests—to interact with gallery works at Amon Carter in a way that they never could before.
“I really was focused on making our museum a museum for everybody,” said Sell, who grew up in Hunt Valley, Md.
Close Encounters offers additional facilitated museum experiences every other month. Participants utilize tactile tools and conversation to connect with artworks in the museum’s permanent collection.
Sell first introduced large print booklets, which enable visitors with vision challenges to read labels that otherwise would have been too small to read.
The next step was creating tactile tools and kits to enhance the traditional visual experience of admiring art to one that includes more of the five senses. The tactile tools and kits are also available for visitors to check out and use on self-guided tours through the collection, so that they may enjoy the artwork individually.
“We have fabrics in [the kits] and little models of certain things that might be in the actual artwork to give people a fuller understanding of the artwork that is in our collection. So we’re connecting with them and we’re meeting them on their plane,” said Sell.
“Everything people experience through Close Encounters mirrors the work we actually have in the galleries, so that the community with low to no vision is having an ‘in-gallery’ experience the same way a sighted person would,” she explained.
Getting the program off the ground was a difficult process, and Sell ran into obstacles, as many staff members of the museum were unsure about funding a program for visitors who were not the typical patrons of museums.
“Typically, people think of an art museum as a totally visual experience, so this concept has been slow to come to fruition, because art museums are not normally places where this particular community is looking for things to do,” she explained.
Following the first session of Close Encounters, the feedback from the participants “reaffirmed that I’m headed in the right direction,” Sell said.
“After one of the first programs that we did, one woman hugged me and said, ‘We don’t have anyone in the community who has thought about us the way that you have. You’re now providing this community with an experience that has never been offered to them.’ It’s these kinds of powerful reminders that let you know what you’re doing is actually making an impact.”
Close Encounters has since received media recognition—and information about the program continues to spread by word of mouth, thanks to visitors and other organizations that support the low to no vision community.
“Part of the driving force in my work is what has been ingrained in me through my Jesuit education: to be a person for others,” she said, adding that this notion continues to inspire her career.
Sell received her bachelor’s degree in Art History and said professors at Loyola encouraged her to attend graduate school. “Loyola has really helped push me towards the museum path,” she said. Sell graduated from the University of Denver with a Master’s in Art History and was armed with the knowledge and experience to pursue a career in a museum setting. She moved from Denver to Fort Worth in August 2013, when she accepted her current position at Amon Carter.
Her work far from finished, and Sell has plans to grow the program to include more variety in the tactile versions of the paintings. And with 3-D printing becoming increasingly viable and available, she hopes to add sculpture to the Close Encounters experience.