Art is NOT an Option

Established 2011, Seattle WA

Provided by PROVAIL

As we pursue this project, the philosophical initiative called Employment First has emerged as a very important concern. Figuring out who is pushing for Employment First, what it means for progressive art studios, and how studios can join the conversation has become an important goal for us.

Proponents of Employment First want to see the end of day habilitation programs altogether, which they refer to as “segregated work sites” and regard to be categorically regressive. Many progressive art studios are struggling now to build programs with structures that will fit into the Employment First vision in the future, while maintaining the virtues of the progressive art studio - not for the good of the program in practice, but simply to brace for change that’s considered to be inevitable.

In Seattle, we encountered an art program with its foundation in Employment First ideology: the boldly named Art is NOT an Option provided by PROVAIL since 2011. It’s the only art-oriented service provided in Seattle that we were able to locate and the first that we’ve found so far that’s devised in alignment with these ideas. The entire project is presently administered by Kelly Rondou, PROVAIL’s Director of Executive Projects, with the help of a large intern and volunteer roster.

Rondou is ambitious and principled in her approach to this work. Her program began immediately after the closing of a VSA program from which they received a large donation of art supplies. She explicitly avoids a day program model similar to the VSA’s, which she believes to be regressive. Rondou uses a donated workspace to offer art making events twice monthly.  She serves about 12 clients at a time, using volunteers that work with her artists 1:1. In the last year she was able to serve about 100 individuals in this way.

Over the course of our conversation, it was clear that what drives Rondou is a genuine and critical appreciation for the potential of her artists. As we toured the office, with paintings and drawings hung salon-style, she was able to discuss the works in enlightening terms - pointing out compelling ideas and choices that her artists were exploring.

It must be said, however, that the works were far from resolved; there was a lot of bare canvas and arbitrary choices. There was indeed exciting potential, but no sign that any of these artists had really begun to find a voice in art making or exhibit real vision and commitment. This shouldn’t be surprising, however, considering that presently these artists are coming into the studio for only a handful of hours per year.

Rondou is working to find ways to unlock this potential. Admirably, she explains that one of her most important goals is gaining the support and attention of critical viewers while escaping the sympathetic eyes of viewers with purely charitable intentions. We discussed that an important step towards this goal is to involve trained artists to facilitate, rather than volunteers who don’t necessarily have any art-related background. Being taken seriously as a creative professional is by no means a problem that’s exclusive to artists living with disabilities. Anyone who has ever attempted to negotiate payment for creative work knows that there’s a stigma that art making is not “real” work; this stigma is a critical dynamic of the sympathetic eye.

We look forward to following Art is NOT an Option as they progress. Finding a way to get fine artists in the community involved in supporting her program’s artist without being able to offer them a steady day job in return, could prove to be an important challenge. It’s inevitable that the exciting potential that this unique program demonstrates already will grow as they serve more clients, conduct more events, and incorporate more artists; what develops in an environment with no day program will be a valuable insight to other programs looking for a way to adapt to the future.