A’Dora Phillips – Director, The Vision & Art Project

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A’Dora Phillips - Director, The Vision & Art Project

​​For the past ten years, A’Dora Phillips has directed the Vision & Art Project. An initiative of the American Macular Degeneration Foundation (AMDF), the Vision & Art Project explores the impact of vision loss due to macular degeneration on both historic and contemporary artists. Her work, which she undertakes in close partnership with her husband, Brian Schumacher, involves researching and writing about artists with macular degeneration, co-curating an institutional collection of pre- and post-macular degeneration artwork for AMDF, co-curating art exhibitions featuring the work of artists with vision loss, and making short films that show artists at work in their studios. The Vision & Art Project’s work has been featured in the New York Times and Artsy. Its most recent film, about the artist Serge Hollerbach, won awards at several film festivals at which it was shown in 2021. A’Dora studied drawing and painting for several years in New York City and Florence, Italy. She holds a BA in literature from Carnegie Mellon University and an MFA in fiction writing from UMass Amherst.

AF: Hi A’Dora! We are so excited to chat with you. First thing’s first, we want to know more about your upbringing. Where are you from and what are the arts communities like there? 

AP:I grew up in an Air Force family, and moved a lot, both within the United States and abroad. From the point of view of the arts, to have grown up in such an environment was fascinating, because I was exposed to many different artistic communities. My first experience of seeing a historic painting happened when I was a young elementary school student in Germany, and we went on a class trip to a provincial museum in a small German town. The paintings there were of nineteenth century forested scenes, a deeply German subject matter; I remember standing in front of one, amazed at how the impasto evoked a forest with a tiny figure disappearing into it. Later, when we lived near Washington, D.C., my family and I spent many weekends in the Smithsonian museums.

In the Philippines, my parents befriended a Filipino artist who painted small reproductions for me and my sisters of James Audubon’s animal portraits from a book we had. In appreciation for the commission, he gave my parents a small painting of his own of figures bathing. It’s a beautiful painting that is still at my parents’ house. Meanwhile, in New Mexico, we would often visit craft fairs, where I would see the traditional workmanship of Mexican and Native American artists and artisans—weavers, potters, silversmiths.

In retrospect, these experiences taught me that wherever you might be in the world, art was valued. Also that there were people who devoted themselves to making objects of beauty, some of which had practical purposes and some of which did not. This meant something to me.

AF: Please tell us a little more about yourself, when did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

AP:I was a bookish kid, studied literature as an undergrad, and got an MFA in fiction writing from UMass Amherst. When I went to college, I took a drawing class and had many friends who were artists. I felt at home among artists, but the career I’ve come to have in the industry only slowly materialized over time and wasn’t something I consciously preconceived or pursued. I was in my late twenties when I began studying drawing and painting in New York. It quickly became a serious interest for me, and I was fortunate as part of my training to be able to spend a year at the Florence Academy of Art. While there, I began writing about art and realized my dream job would bring together my passion for art with my deep love of writing and research.

AF: You are the Director of The Vision & Art Project! Tell us more about The Vision & Art Project and your role as Director.

AP:The Vision & Art Project is an initiative of the American Macular Degeneration Foundation (AMDF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of macular degeneration and empowering those with this disease to live to the fullest. Chip Goehring founded AMDF almost thirty years ago, after he was diagnosed with macular degeneration at the relatively young age of thirty-nine and told he was statistically likely to become legally blind. In its early years, AMDF focused on educating the public about the disease. As the foundation began to grow, it also began to fund researchers working toward a cure. Chip had always been interested in how artists dealt with macular disease, and in 2013, the Vision & Art Project was born to explore that question. Our mission is to explore the influence macular degeneration has had on both historical and contemporary art and artists. While I direct the Vision & Art Project, I should say that Chip Goehring continues to be a guiding force and my husband, Brian Schumacher, who serves as creative director, has worked tirelessly with me from the beginning to envision the possibilities of our work. 

The project has taken shape in several ways. First, we curate AMDF’s growing art collection, which strives to champion and support the art of accomplished artists who continue to work with macular degeneration. Our focus is on acquiring both early and late works by artists, or, as we have come to refer to them, “pre- and post-macular” works. As an extension of this curatorial effort, the Vision & Art Project mounts exhibitions that make this artwork available to the public, the first of which was at the University of Cincinnati DAAP Galleries in 2018. 

Second, we document the lives and work of outstanding professional artists with macular degeneration. We maintain an ongoing roster of these artists, conduct oral histories with living artists who have been diagnosed with the condition, and write in-depth features about the impact macular degeneration has had on both historic and contemporary artists. We also make short documentary films that show the artists we work with in their studios. These materials are available to the public at the Vision & Art Project website, which serves as the archive of our research. 

Finally, we build long-term relationships with artists and labor on their behalf to ensure that, in the face of their unique challenges with vision loss, they and their work remain an active and meaningful part of our cultural dialogue. Among other things, this means focusing not solely on an artist’s vision loss but honoring the entire arc of an artist’s career and showing how low vision fits within the context of a much larger whole.

AF: How did you first become connected to The Vision & Art Project? 

AP :In 2009, on the occasion of a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Chip hired me to write a brochure about O’Keeffe’s vision loss from macular degeneration. The brochure was distributed at the Clark as part of its educational programming in conjunction with the show. 

Soon thereafter Brian and I partnered with AMDF for what became a fascinating journey of beginning to find artists with macular degeneration. The subject dovetailed beautifully with our own backgrounds and long-standing research interests. Brian is a classically trained figure painter with an interest in visual perception and in gaining a greater understanding of how and what we see. And when I partnered with AMDF on this initiative, I happened to be researching the role of constraints in the making of art. In the arts, constraints are often seen as opportunities, engines driving innovation and creativity. It seemed to me then—and still does—that vision loss was yet another powerful constraint shaping the lives of visual artists, often in interesting and profound ways.

AF: What does an average day as Director look like for you? 

AP: My work is so varied and project-driven that in many ways there’s no average day, aside from the fact that, like everyone, I spend a lot of time answering emails. Yesterday I was at the National Arts Club in New York, wrapping up our exhibit there and hand delivering some work that had sold. Tomorrow, I’m going to start my day on a Zoom call with Brian and the amazing film editor we’re working with, Rachel Clark. We’ll be discussing some final details on a film we’re almost finished with about the sculptor Tim Prentice. I’ll likely spend the rest of the day on the film—we’re at the place where I need to compile credits, for example. And, I’m still not satisfied with our title, and so I plan to read some poetry to see if something grabs my attention as the seed for a better title. On any other given day, Brian and I could be doing studio visits with artists, watching auction results unfold, getting artwork framed, doing research, writing, or working on the details of our next exhibition.

AF: You recently curated What Was Once Familiar: The Vision & Art Project’s Tenth Anniversary Benefit Exhibition. We would love to know more about this exhibition and your curatorial process.

AP: This exhibition was a celebration of The Vision & Art Project’s 10th anniversary. It was held at the National Arts Club in New York from March 20 to April 26, 2024 and featured 52 works by eleven artists who have or had macular degeneration. Brian and I co-curated the exhibition. We worked closely with many of the gallerists, artists, and artist estates that we’ve come to know over the years–we’re so grateful to them, as well as to AMDF for their support.

Our curation focused on the consideration of art created pre- and post-macular degeneration, revealing the myriad ways that the artists’ practices transform over time, how artists’ changing visions shape their experiences of the world, and how this translates into the evolution of their visual expressions. 

As well as showcasing a lot of amazing artwork, the exhibition is a fundraiser for AMDF and artists with vision loss who contributed work to the show. Now that the gallery exhibition has closed, works will continue to be sold through an online viewing room until the end of the year (visionartbenefit.org). 

AF: What do you wish more people knew about macular degeneration? 

AP: Regardless of your age, it’s important to get regular eye exams, which can detect macular degeneration (the leading cause of vision loss in Americans sixty years of age and older) even before you realize you’re developing it. Although there is as yet no cure, early detection can help you make the most of your remaining vision and keep your quality of life.

AF: Do you have any personal goals for this year? 

AP: The planning and details around What Was Once Familiar were so all-consuming that I’ve read much less than usual for the past few years. I’d like to start reading again, both books pertinent to my work, like Andrew Leland’s 2023 memoir, The Country of the Blind, and books that have piled up next to my desk, many by friends. We also recently removed the overgrown Yews from our front yard and now have a huge expanse of dirt that we’d like to turn into a pollinator garden.

AF: As you know, Art Frankly is a community that cares about job transparency and supporting fellow art professionals. What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world? 

AP: In the art world, nothing you’ve learned is wasted. You should always be combing through your experiences, past and present, even experiences you might rather forget, for insights, lessons, and skills that you can use.

AF: How do you think the art world can become more transparent? 

AP: When we talk about an industry becoming more “transparent,” I think we’re usually talking about how issues around money and organizational decision-making can become less opaque. Like many of your interviewees, I certainly feel it’s important to share information about salaries. I also think that, if you’re ever asked what it’s taken to succeed, you ought to be honest and concrete about what fell into place for you (generally, some combination of talent, drive, luck, and financial resources). But because of my work at the Vision & Art Project, when I think about how the art world can become more transparent, I also think about how we would all benefit from talking more openly about challenges and impediments. Artists often worry that views of their work may be negatively impacted if people knew they were losing their vision; as a result, some try to keep their macular degeneration a secret. If more of us felt safe talking about limits, we’d have a much more interesting and accurate view of the art world.

AF: A’Dora, thank you so much for participating in Frank Talks, it has been a delight to chat with you! To finish off, we’d love to ask you our classic final question: If you could own work by 5 different artists/craftspeople, who would be in your collection? 

AP: Along with any artist at the V&AP, I would love Rembrant (an etching), Albert Pinkham Ryder, Emma Amos, Gabriella Boyd, and a page from an illuminated manuscript.

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