This has been a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, and it all finally came bubbling to the surface the last week or so. I’ve been seeing so many amazing posts and articles and emails from fellow artists about art retreats they are holding soon, or just held. I was on a Zoom call recently with a well-known artist (and a genuinely lovely person), and she was showing those of us on the call photos of her recent retreat in France. It looked STUNNING as you can well imagine, and everyone looked like they had such a good time and generated a lot of interesting art. Some of the artists who attended were also on the call, and were gushing about how incredible the experience was (and how it changed their art practice for the better), and how much they were looking forward to next year’s retreat.
But one photo stood out to me during the Zoom call (not the photo above) — it was a woman sitting on a normal foldup style chair, overlooking a beautiful French field while sketching. There were other similar photos of artists sitting in the grass, looking out at the beautiful vista, happily sketching away. I instantly got really sad, and thought, “This isn’t for me, I couldn’t do that, even though I really want to.” What can’t I do? Sit in a chair with no neck support while looking down at my lap to draw. Within five minutes I would likely be so stiff and seized up I would need to lie down, and/or feel like I need to cry (but of course crying makes everything physically hurt more, so that’s always very much a last resort for relieving tension and stress). Now I realize that my injury is unique, not too many people have a similar injury. But there are so many people who might need to be in a more supportive position, or generally be in an environment that is not assuming they are completely able-bodied (like those with MS, chronic pain, arthritis, etc).
And that’s what so many of these retreats are assuming — that you are completely able-bodied. That you can just as easily go sit in a field to sketch as you can stand at an easel for hours, or bent over a studio table, or even work without regular short breaks. That you can walk along cobblestone paved streets for a few hours on the excursion to the beautiful market in town (and if you’ve ever been to Europe, you’ll know the infrastructure is so old that it’s really not accessible in many ways). That your body can cope with the stressors of international travel (including hours sitting in airports, airline seats that don’t recline enough to alleviate health issues and allow real rest, and hours of transfers from airports to your destination). That you can even handle full days of working in a group and then socializing together after, with little to no substantial breaks (which applies as much to mental health challenges as it does to physical ones). We all know so many people who have a variety of health challenges, whether they be temporary or permanent. This isn’t just about me, it’s about the thousands of people like me, who desperately want to participate. We shouldn’t have to debate between our intense desire to be a part of our community, to learn from amazing instructors and to be inspired (and potentially make huge shifts in our work that can impact our career moving forward), and our desire to not suffer awful consequences to our physical and/or mental health.
So what’s the solution? It’s two-fold. First, care needs to be given to even address the issue of accomodation for accesibility on sales pages, information pages, etc. Not addressing such issues makes you as the potential participant feel like your needs haven’t even been considered, and you’re not sure how open the organizer would be to making accomodations (so you don’t want to put yourself in a vulnerable position by asking). Accessibility can be built into the overall plan of the event, such as offering the option of a half-day schedule. Even if a participant missed some sections, the reduced schedule would allow them the rest time they need to be able to withstand the whole week. There are many such accomodations that can be made for in-person retreats and events, but there needs to be the awareness that such accomodations are necessary in the first place.
And ironically, the second solution is right under our noses, and has been since the pandemic — online access. I have said to so many people that one “good” thing that came out of the pandemic was that now most everyone on the planet understands what it’s like to have your movement out of your house restricted, to figuring out how to work from home, to being forced to communicate in a different way like through Zoom calls. I attended several online artists conferences during the pandemic, and I said to the organizers at each one, “Thank you for making this accessible to people with health issues like me, please continue doing this from now on.” I know of one conference that is doing so, there is a mix of virtual and in-person tickets to the upcoming conference. But so many have reverted to in-person only. Like the lessons that were painfully learned in the pandemic were completely forgotten about. That all the talk of inclusion and community was stripped back to “only those that can attend in person.” And let’s be clear, this isn’t just about health issues preventing people from attending in person, there are real disparities in wealth that prevent so many artists who would thrive in a retreat from attending. Maybe they have the money for the retreat itself, but can’t attend because it would be way too difficult or expensive to arrange childcare for the week they’d be gone. Or maybe it’s the add-on expenses of flights and not included costs that make it prohibitively expensive. Or maybe they are caring for an elderly parent and simply cannot be physically away for a week, but they could participate if they could create from home.
In order to be more inclusive, we have to do better. Organizers of events, whether that’s individual artists or amazing art retreat companies like UpTrek and Ace Camps Travel, need to consider the lessons learned in the pandemic and actively be more inclusive. What can be done? Hire artists like myself who are experienced in a wide variety of mediums and styles of learning (thanks art/craft school in New Zealand and decades as a working artist) who also have managed to navigate the world of being an artist with a disability or health limitations. People like myself would be happy to consult with companies and other artists to help them think through their planned retreat, and come up with solutions that would not only benefit those attending in person but also come up with creative solutions so people could attend online.
Let’s be clear, this would benefit the hosting artist and companies greatly too — by offering online access in some way, that’s basically an unlimited floodgate of people who could attend, who will be happy to pay to attend, and that can be served and educated in a streamlined manner without the logistics of having a few hundred or more extra people in front of you. Most of the international retreats I’ve seen advertised run from around $3500-5000 US for a week, assuming double occupancy in a room and some meals and flights not included. So taking out all the incedental costs of the food and board, and reducing the price a bit as obviously online would be “less” than being in the studio in a beautiful location in person, this could generate a lot of revenue for those running the retreats. The one conference I’ve seen advertised as being both virtual and in-person, their tickets are around $350-400 for the virtual event, and $2000 for in-person (it’s only a weekend event, so shorter than some of the international art retreats I’ve looked into).
There are so many ways a retreat could be run virtually alongside the live event, such as streaming studio sessions and field trips live (and recording them for participants to access later, and use for marketing the next retreat or selling as a standalone product later). Sessions could also be recorded and given to online participants to access later, in the case that the retreat is in a very remote location where the internet isn’t stable or strong enough to do live streaming. Perhaps even the in-person participants would be interested in paying extra to access the recordings later, either just as a souvenir of their trip, or to access information that they’d like to practice more than once. Online learning and participation is incredibly valuable (again, as we all experienced in the worst of the pandemic), like the painting that’s the main image of this post was done via an online class – I’m currently taking the class to help me create art around my physical limitations. It’s difficult for me to predictably be able to go back to an oil painting the next day to keep working on it, so the “alla prima” technique is proving quite helpful in that regard.
With the rise of companies hiring DEI consultants to better their businesses and make their company (and products) more diverse and accessible to all, it still rather baffles me that those like myself are completely forgotten about. Accessibility is about so much more than wheelchair ramps, or high-contrast text for those who have limited vision. Artists are creative problem solvers, and are usually so sharing of their knowledge and want to form a tight community. Like I’m very thankful I’m part of the Art Brand Alliance and groups like Advice for Artists, there is a lot of openess and community in those spaces. But until issues like what I and thousands of other artists face daily are raised up, they can’t be solved or accomodated. People running retreats aren’t being exclusionary on purpose, most of the artists I know running retreats are so kind and well-meaning (which is why no artist names are mentioned in this post). But we can do better, we can stop making incredible learning and growth experiences available just to the able-bodied or those who have the capacity to attend in person. Artists like myself want to help create a more inclusive community, we just need to be asked for our feedback and help.