Becky Emmert, Head of Accessibility and Mike Murawski, Director of Learning and Community Partnerships.

Accessibility at the Museum

Making great art accessible to everyone is at the core of the Museum’s mission. Providing the opportunity for people of all ages and abilities, including those who experience disabilities, to connect with art is central to the Museum’s purpose and programs.

The Museum has long offered tours for visitors who are Blind or partially sighted, and has in recent years developed a partnership with the Oregon Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to offer artNOW, a program that welcomes individuals living with dementia and their care partners. Service animals are always welcome, aides and care providers receive free admission, and wheelchairs and assisted listening devices are always available. However, navigating the existing galleries across several historic buildings has become increasingly problematic after decades of expansion, and over time, the need to create better connections has become a priority.

“I am proud of our ability over the years to remove some cost barriers to visiting,” said Director Brian Ferriso. “And now our focus is on removing physical barriers and creating a greater sense of welcome, ease, and beauty for everyone who visits or passes by the Museum.”

Early conversations with stakeholders about the Museum’s Rothko Pavilion expansion and renovation revealed the need to address the Museum’s accessibility on a holistic level—from ease of physical access to programs and exhibition design, among other things. From these conversations grew an Accessibility Architecture Task Force, a series of open community dialogues, the formation of a permanent Accessibility Advisory Committee, and the recent hire of Becky Emmert as the Museum’s first-ever Head of Accessibility.

Emmert experiences multiple disabilities, is hard of hearing and is an active member of the local Deaf Community; she brings experience and expertise in facilitation, advocacy, and evaluation to this new position. She holds degrees in American Sign Language/English Interpreting and Rehabilitation Counseling with emphasis on Deaf Services, and has worked in a variety of settings including mental health counseling, job development, youth transition, and independent living settings.

“I am honored to be able to join Portland Art Museum at this exciting time of increased focus on diversity and commitment to making the museum accessible for all,” Emmert said. “I look forward to collaborating with staff, the Accessibility Advisory Committee, guests, and the community to find innovative ways to bring about the changes needed to ensure that the wide range of exhibits and programming that the Museum offers are accessible and welcoming to all guests.”

With the Rothko Pavilion project prompting transformational thinking around accessibility and Universal Design, the Museum is positioned to create an entire campus and art experience that not only considers the needs of visitors with disabilities, but centers them.

The newly formed Accessibility Advisory Committee is part of the Museum’s long-term commitment to build lasting relationships with Deaf and Disability community members. Committee member responsibilities include advising staff on the accessibility and inclusiveness of the museum’s programs and policies, offering input about exhibitions, education programs, and the museum’s architectural projects. The committee members are Myles de Bastion, Cathleen Casey, Larry Cross, Tyra Lovato, Gabriel Merrell, Beth Omansky, Myrlaviani Perez-Rivier, Angel Ray, Alejandra Sanchez-Hernandez, Neesha Strickland, Christina Wienholz, and Philip Wolfe.

Accessibility Advisory Committee member Larry Cross said, “The new accessibility vision will develop a seamless campus, physically accessible to everybody and Every Body in all three buildings. The directive of ‘accessibility’ also expands its meaning to emphasize a new goal of welcome to far more people, making the Museum accessible because the new project will invite and entice people to attend and join the Museum. That includes developing new programs that encourage the widest demographic of people to become involved with the Museum.”

The Rothko Pavilion design was recently unanimously approved by the City of Portland Historic Landmarks Commission. The design, by Vinci Hamp Architects (Chicago) and Hennebery Eddy Architects (Portland), incorporates many Universal Design elements—features and improvements that go beyond the application of the regulatory requirements and guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), and Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) Accessibility Standards. Examples include cohesive wayfinding and intuitive circulation; equitable access into the building and through the building; gender neutral restrooms; the use of contrasting textures and color values for ease of navigation; and unified elevator access.

“The Portland Art Museum is truly a community resource for Portland and the surrounding region,” said Andrew Smith, AIA, Hennebery Eddy Architects. “The input we’ve received from the Accessibility Advisory Committee has been of tremendous value to the design team in our pursuit of the project goals.”