Honoring Leaders in Cultural Access

“If the world doesn’t give you what you need, then you change the world.”

– Arlene Romoff, from her soon-to-be-published book, Listening Closely.

When I asked Arlene – an access advocate and winner of this year’s Excellence in Cultural Access Award for Leadership – about that, she said, “That quote is pretty much what the arts community does in NJ, right?!!”


It does.

These changes in our world are what brought together the representatives from many of NJ’s arts organizations at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, itself a leader in accessibility. At the 2nd Annual Excellence in Cultural Access Awards colleagues gathered to honor their peers at the event presented by the Cultural Access Network of NJ (CAN), a cosponsored project of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance (NJTA), and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts (NJSCA).

In her welcoming remarks, Council Chair Sharon Burton Turner recalled the beginnings of the partnership between NJSCA and NJTA that led to the Cultural Access Network. Current Executive Director of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, John McEwen, was working at the Paper Mill Playhouse and serving on NJTA’s board, and he went to the council with an idea to expand programs and services for patrons with disabilities.

Together these organizations imagined, planned and created a network that provides learning opportunities, tools, resources and guidance to expand cultural access in New Jersey for artists, patrons and organizations. Over the past 16 years this vision has touched countless lives, and has created an atmosphere of “Participation, Inclusion and Connection” which are the cornerstones of the project.

Four awards were given out to arts organizations and individuals who sustain their commitment to arts access, innovate by creating new avenues to include people with disabilities, and lead the way, by proving that nothing is impossible.

This year’s Sustainer Award went to Paper Mill Playhouse for their 25+ years of accessibility programming, which includes regularly scheduled audio described, sign interpreted and captioned performances. Michael Mooney, the theater’s Outreach and Access Coordinator, was on hand to accept the Award saying, “We also hope that by sustaining we can be a role model, an example of what is possible.”

The panel of judges had a hard time selecting just one organization for the Innovation Award, and this year one was presented to both Appel Farm Arts & Music Center and Surflight Theatre.

Through its HeArt & Health Initiative, Appel Farm & Music Center developed a partnership with Salem Health and Wellness to create a program that serves populations with disabilities through the arts. Participating audiences include care-givers and residents in nursing homes and care facilities, people with physical and mental disabilities, and at risk and homeless families.

Surflight Theatre was presented with the award for ongoing efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities who are employed by Surflight, applying for jobs, or attending the theatre, are treated fairly and given equal opportunities. A very moved Steve Steiner – Surflight’s Artistic Director – accepted the award reiterating his philosophy, “You hire the best actress for the part and sometimes you have to look a little bit outside of the way you might normally look at something to do that.”

Arlene Romoff was this year’s Leadership Award recipient. Arlene, the president of the Hearing Loss Association of NJ is a tireless advocate for Open Captioning. Her efforts led the Paper Mill to their first open captioned performance in 1996 and that performance started a revolution that has spanned the globe. Her tenacity is also responsible for the growing acceptance of captioning being made available on the nation’s movie screens as well.

Actress and singer Ali Stroker, a Paper Mill Playhouse and Surflight Theatre alum, left the audience breathless after performing a medley of inspirational tunes that represented her growth as a performer with a disability. Before she sang, Ms. Stroker said, “I just want to say that I’m a direct result of what all of you have done. I’ve been performing since I was 6 and I feel very, very honored to be from New Jersey, because of the amazing opportunities that I’ve been able to have.”

Visual artist, Bojana Coklyat, wove a tale of despair at learning that she was losing her sight, to rebirth at finding a new outlet to both create art and teach it at the St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City. During her inspirational and sometimes very funny talk, Ms. Coklyat said, “I’ve taken this possible weakness – some might say – and I’ve turned it into a strength. I see things differently than most people would see things; I have a different perspective. Through my vision loss, I’ve gained so much. I found a new focus in my art career, because I was so close to losing what I love.”

In his closing remarks, Steve Runk, Executive Director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, thanked the award winners, speakers and performers, and said, “They remind us of why we’re here and doing what we do.”

“What we do.”

We change the world, right?


Guest blogger: Robert Carr, New Jersey Theatre Alliance

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