Art for all: 6 hidden barriers to an inclusive arts practice

Art is for everyone. You only have to spend a few minutes on Instagram or Pinterest to see how much people love it. Yet, art still has a branding problem. 

Despite the appearance of creative success on these platforms, the art world in real life can feel daunting and exclusive. This elitism comes from an industry that is rife with ambiguity. Where big cultural institutions are the gate-keepers who hold all the answers.

But even these big institutions are recognising they need to do more to make their exhibitions more friendly and inclusive to all. So, as a small arts org or practicing artist, how do you go about removing barriers that prevent people from engaging in your work?

Identifying and removing blockers in your art practice

Let’s clarify something crucial up front. Your creative work can’t and won’t appeal to everyone. An inclusive art practice, where art is for all, isn’t about trying to please everyone.

It’s about knowing your audience so well that you understand how to make them feel included at every step of their journey with you. Read on to learn the most common barriers I see, so you can remove them.

1. Stop trying to be so clever

“Many people are intimidated by art and feel that there’s a base level of understanding required to join the conversation.”Ferren Gibson

And it’s no wonder, when the language around art features words like; phenomenology, hyper-contextual, and anti-didacticGroan. Or you may have heard of these more common cliches like: 

  • juxtaposes – the act of placing two things close together to compare and contrast them 
  • kitsch – a term applied to decorative art, or art considered in ‘poor taste’ – uhmm, who decides this?
  • vernissage – a French word for a preview or private view on the opening night of an exhibition
  • oeuvre – the artist’s body of work to date.

You don’t need to sound like an academic to bring your art to life on the page. If your audience doesn’t feel smart enough to *get* it, they’ll scroll right past it. 

A great example of an artist’s statement that avoids art jargon is from James Price, in his exhibition, ‘Today I tried to be a Trampoline’. 

“I appreciate that I’m only ever responsible for 50% of the artistic experience anyone has with my work. I’m trying to be a platform for your own experiences to ‘bounce’ off of… sometimes your experiences intertwine with my work and bounce right back into your soul and hit you. 

We can only do that together. So the title of the show acknowledges this ‘bounce’… then I try to take it further, and think about the most valuable emotion I can give right now – which is joy…”

James Price

While his sentences could be a little shorter for ease of reading, he does a great job of avoiding formal, academic language. In doing so, he invites people to join him in feeling that joy, which makes his work relatable.

Instead, use Plain or Easy English.

Sharing complex ideas in simple terms isn’t easy. As readers, we’re overwhelmed with information online, so we need to make the right information easy to read and find. Research shows we’re accustomed to scanning text to find the most relevant information for us, and this is where plain English comes in. 

Scope explains that Plain English is best when your audience understands the topics you’re talking about, and have reasonable literacy skills. 

Easy English uses the same techniques as Plain English, but is enhanced with simple design and fonts, subheadings and illustrations to help communicate each point. 

Audiences that benefit from Easy English include people with low literacy or English as their second language. People with a disability or those who aren’t confident using a computer, such as older people. 

Best practices

  • Use basic language and grammar
  • Avoid art jargon that confuses people 
  • Break up text into smaller paragraphs of around 2 sentences
  • Use less words, shorter sentences and write how you speak 
  • Use contractions and address the audience directly 
  • Use subheadings, bullets, numbered lists and white space to break up the text
  • Explain one idea per sentence
  • Use a simple font, layout and design
  • Select images that are easily understood and add meaning to the text

When editing your work, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Why is my audience reading this?
  2. What do they need to know?
  3. What do they need to do?

My suggestion is to write like you speak, then read your work aloud. If you stumble over it, it’s too complex. Use a tool like, Hemingway App to help you. 

Or get someone you trust to help you edit or proofread your work. This can help you catch common writing pitfalls you make.

2. Enhance readability and flow

When you’re writing copy, consider the order of what your reader wants to know. Then plan it logically, from most important to least important. 

Make your text easy to scan, with clear headings that signpost each piece of content. This helps readers find the information most relevant to them.

Add consistent colours to links and make sure you signpost them by underlining them.

Step out the path to purchase

Think about the path your buyers are taking to find and purchase your work. Then plot them out using post-it notes. Arrange each step until it flows logically.

For example, each page deeper into your shop should take the buyer closer to a purchase decision. The path might follow this flow:

Home page > Gallery page > Shop category page > Artwork page > Cart…

  1. Your home page might have one sentence explaining a core theme/story/intention of your work to pique your collector’s interest.
  1. They click through to browse your gallery. In this space, there is limited detail about each collection, no pricing or purchase info.
  1. They decide to explore a collection on the shop category page. Here you add more detail about the body of work as a whole, but not individual pieces. You might allow tagging or filtering to help buyers sort the work according to price, style, size, type and more on this page.
  1. If a browser likes a piece, they click from this category to a single artwork page. Here you add a compelling story about this piece. You include purchase info like price, framing, shipping and more.

If you’re unsure how people are searching for pieces, ask them!

Each page further towards a purchase decision includes more detail. This way you avoid bombarding them with too much info from the start.

Art is for everyone, make it accessible with inclusive arts copy.

Image description: Art is for everyone. Make it accessible with inclusive arts copy.

3. Reduce overwhelm by giving clear directions

As well as reducing overwhelm with too much information up front, it’s important to reduce the number of micro decisions your audience needs to make. Too many decisions fatigues buyers and reduces the number who make that final purchase.

These are some common mistakes I see:

  • Difficulty navigating from socials to webstore and then to purchase
  • Difficulty navigating websites (too many steps, bad design or confusing path to purchase)
  • Broken links, images and dead ends. Buyers should never have to press the browser back button

What can you do?

Use clear call to actions (CTA’s) in the form of buttons or explicit directions to tell people what to do next. For example, give readers a direction once they read to the bottom of your blog post.

Ask them to download a guide/tip sheet/read another blog/browse artworks. Pick something that naturally flows on from the content.

Get help from someone outside your business to map out the path to purchase and give you feedback. Take note of each interaction and simplify if possible.

You’d be surprised how much difference this can make!

4. Acknowledge how your audience is feeling

Understand what your readers are doing and feeling when engaging with your work. Start by asking yourself three questions:

  1. What are they trying to do?
  2. How are they feeling?
  3. How should we respond?

For example, your audience member wants to know what dietary or accessible seating/bathroom options are available at your event before they book.

  1. What are they trying to do? Find answers to questions that include their situation
  2. How are they feeling? Confused, disappointed, irritated  
  3. How should you respond? Gentle, calm, informative

Or your collector is browsing paintings, and looking for the one they like that fits their budget.

  1. What are they trying to do? Find a piece that speaks to them, and confirm the price before they buy 
  2. How are they feeling? Curious, uncertain, excluded
  3. How should you respond? Welcoming, approachable, honest

Write as if you’re speaking to one person. Picture them in your head, and think about what outcome they’re looking for. 

5. Reduce barriers to accessibility

Art is for everyone. Does your copy reflect this? If your copy uses overly academic language, it risks sounding elitist and exclusionary. And this puts collectors off.

After all, we all want to feel included, and your collectors do too. So, here are some little tips to consider when drafting your next gallery label or artwork description for your webstore.

One type of art accessibility looks like…

  • Removing art jargon from gallery labels and website art descriptions.
  • Increasing contrast and size of wall labels and web copy.
  • Reducing the label length to around 100 words, and including a QR code for those who are curious to know more.
  • Adding personality and humor to labels, rather than traditional, academic language.
  • Use a conversational tone in labels and descriptions. Use the artist’s voice to make them relatable.
  • Place labels in an easy to access space for people using mobility aids.
  • Add audio and braille versions for people with low vision. Use alt text to describe images online.

Access to the information you provide about your art is a human right. Let’s include everyone in the conversation.

6. Be more transparent

Collectors aren’t looking for artworks from faceless brands (or they’d just buy a Kmart print!), they buy from *people*. And most artists are individuals who are responsible for seeing their vision come to life. Even if they work with a team to help them create their work, they are responsible for the outcome.

So, when writing about your art practice, use the correct nouns to describe yourself.

Don’t refer to yourself as ‘we’ or ‘us’. Write, ‘I’ or ‘my’.

This allows you to build a direct connection with your audience, rather than hiding behind a faceless brand. 

You can still give credit to your collaborators and your team without confusing your audience by mentioning who was involved in the project.

Price on enquiry… err no.

Avoid obscurity (such as ‘price on enquiry’). It creates a sense of unapproachable elitism that makes people feel like they can’t afford your work. 

Even those that could might never enquire because they don’t want to feel embarrassed by telling you they can’t afford it. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re not good enough to be able to buy something you like. 

If your price varies based on size/frame, etc, add a ‘from’ price (i.e. From $250). This will give you the flexibility to charge more, but make those options clear in the description, or as part of the ‘add to cart’ process.

I hope you’ve identified some hidden barriers in your own art practice and have a better idea on how to fix them. But if you’re feeling like you’re still too close to your work to write about it, let’s chat. 

Almost every artist I work with struggles writing about their art. I’ll let you into a little secret – all sorts of business owners struggle with this too. If you need help sorting through all the info in your head and writing about your art, I can help.

Over to you

What barriers have you identified in your practice? Let me know in the comments.