Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: Getting to Know Beth Bienvenu

Washington, DC


Photo courtesy Beth Bienvenu

On Monday we welcomed Beth Bienvenu as our new Director of the NEA Office of Accessibility. (Read our press release here.) Beth was already a familiar face around the agency having worked with us on last year's Careers in the Arts Summit in her role as a policy advisor in the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy and also on youth arts employment programs as a senior associate at TATC Consulting. So, without further ado---Beth Bienvenu, come on down!

NEA: In five words or less, who is Beth Bienvenu?

BETH BIENVENU: Dedicated to arts and access.

NEA: What do you hope to learn while you?re here at the NEA?

BIENVENU: I hope to learn everything. I intend to learn everyday from my colleagues and also from the field. And, as a performing artist, I?d like to learn about the other art forms that I haven?t studied myself. And I think this is a great place to learn that.

NEA: Oh, I didn?t know about your performing arts work.

BIENVENU: I?m a singer; I sing in choirs and I studied voice in college. I also play piano and played percussion through high school and college. Oh, and theater too.

NEA: Can you talk about how accessibility affects the arts community as a whole?

BIENVENU: Access is important for every aspect of the arts. It?s not just people with disabilities, it?s people in institutions and at-risk populations, so it?s important for all of the arts to be inclusive of everyone in their community. And that community includes the artists and performers and creators themselves, but also audience members, students, and employees. We try to emphasize accessibility to ensure that all people are being included in the employment arena as well.

NEA: What are some of the issues that are percolating right now around access and employment for people with disabilities in the arts and culture arena?

BIENVENU: One key issue that?s been a hot button topic for a long time is universal design. It?s ensuring that as you design products and spaces and exhibits and programs, you ensure that everyone can participate. And it?s not ?special? design. It?s not setting something aside for a special population, it?s ensuring that everyone is included as you design your programs and your products.

The second thing is technology. As arts organizations start to use social media and new technologies like smartphones and iPads, as they develop apps for these devices, and as they use technology to produce, present, and market art, they need to ensure that that?s accessible for all. It?s an issue in every arena when it comes to people who have visual or hearing or other limitations. The third issue that impacts a lot of arenas is the aging baby boom population. A baby boomer turns 60 every seven seconds, so there are going to be a lot of people that will start to acquire limitations in hearing and vision and mobility, and we need to keep that in mind when designing spaces and programs. What we also know through the research that the Arts Endowment has done in the arts and aging is that arts help keep us vital as we age. So the arts community needs to keep that in mind as they develop their programming.

The fourth area is careers in the arts for people with disabilities. Even in this tough economy, we need the arts community to ensure that their education programs and their career opportunities are accessible for all because that is how we develop young artists who want to have careers in the arts. We need to ensure that all people have access to those types of education and training programs, and that arts organizations are including people with disabilities in their hiring initiatives.

NEA: You?ve worked in both the arts and labor communities. How do those two fields intersect for you?

BIENVENU: I?ve always seen the arts as part of employment, even in my early days at the Labor Department. I was working with at-risk youth programs, and I wanted to ensure that there were arts programs involved with that. I worked with a large number of talented young people to help develop their arts participation through choirs, art and poetry contests, poetry slams, and video contests. Even if these programs were not always explicitly developing their careers, they helped them develop their soft skills and the things that they needed to become successful in the workplace. And for some it does help them to start their careers as professional artists. While I was at the Office of Disability Employment Policy, I worked with the NEA and the Accessibility Office to plan and develop the Careers in the Arts Summit that was held in 2009. I definitely see that the arts are part of the employment landscape, and I want to ensure that all people have access to the tools that they need to become successful as professional artists.

NEA: To date, what are you most proud of in your career?

BIENVENU: I would say that I?m most proud of the work that I?ve done over the past ten years in public service, knowing that the work that I do is helping people, whether it?s helping people with disabilities get jobs, or helping people with disabilities or older Americans or others have full access to the arts. And also, I?m proud of the fact that I was able to help train future arts managers for a few years while I was teaching at George Mason. So, I believe that I?m most proud of the work that I?ve done to help other people.

NEA: What does ?Art works? mean to you?

BIENVENU: To me it means that the arts can play a pivotal role in creating inclusive and livable communities. When the arts are truly inclusive of everyone, they can bring together communities and create opportunities for community development, personal development, and it?s important that all people have access to those opportunities.

NEA: What would we be most surprised to learn about you?

BIENVENU: I have an obsession with drum lines, in a marching band context. Some high school and college marching bands and drum corps have amazing drummers and they just do amazing things. I could go on YouTube and watch drum lines all day long.

NEA: Anything you want to add?

BIENVENU: Only that I?m excited to be here and looking forward to working hard to bring the arts to everyone.

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