The Canvas

Established 2006, Juneau

provided by REACH

Alaska is an incredible, beautiful place - as I drove into Juneau to meet with The Canvas I took this photo from my truck. Juneau is a relatively small town, but it’s a very popular tourist destination, flooded daily by multiple cruise ships. Although The Canvas is not the northernmost art program that exists (there are others in Anchorage) it’s the northernmost program that we’ll visit for now. It was well worth the 3000 mile trip by car, then train, then boat to get there.

The Canvas is a program provided by REACH, a non-profit corporation providing a full range of services to Southeast Alaska since 1970 including employment, residential, and case management for adults and children living with developmental disabilities and their families. REACH serves Juneau, as well as several remote rural communities.

The Canvas was opened in 2006 by Annie Geselle following a trip around the country conducting research similar to ours - Geselle’s vision was to create a studio program that was integrated and promoting an inclusive arts community. The program’s commitment to integration informs many of their choices and is still a goal of the current Director.

Unlike most progressive art studios, The Canvas deliberately does not describe itself as an “open studio”. The program is open 6 days a week and offers 2 class times Monday through Friday, and 1 session on Saturdays; these take place in three hour time slots, that accommodate classes lasting approximately 2 hrs. (9am to 12pm, and 1pm to 4pm). The program’s artists are referred to as “Students” and certain staff are referred to as “Teachers”, artists chosen for their artistic experience and knowledge; classes focus on understanding media and developing technique.

The facility includes a 2D studio, ceramics studio, and gallery. The 2D studio is used primarily for “day habilitation” classes, which aren’t integrated. The gallery shows work by student artists from the program, as well as artists from the local community - integrated classes are sometimes held in the gallery, which are on occasion taught by the student artists.

The program is relatively small, serving about 44 students all together, who typically attend 2 - 3 classes per week (although some attend as often as 5 days per week). There are 3 full-time teachers and three part-time teachers employed, who are expected to have ability in both art and direct care. In addition, two artists are employed temporarily as teachers for a one year time period, in a residency-like arrangement. During this time they teach classes and work towards a specific goal (a project, body of work, or exhibition) with the support of a regular staff teacher for direct care support.

The Canvas is very concerned with finding ways to integrate their “Student Artists” into the community. Commitment to this idea informs a lot of the program’s choices on many levels - from the integrated classes for artists with and without disabilities to work together, to more detailed choices, like hanging art lower so that it’s visible to viewers in wheelchairs.

Beyond simply getting their students involved in the local art scene by showing their work in shows, The Canvas also finds that expecting a high standard of quality from guest artists from the community in their own gallery brings about integration by enabling artists and viewers to experience their artists’ work with a greater critical respect.

The program strives to uphold high standards and present the work in a professional manner primarily for the sake of this ambitious concept of a community integration and not as much for the sake of sales.

The Canvas is relatively new and seems to be in a stage where new ambitions, informed by experience, are starting to take shape. Kelly states that they’re definitely interested in showing and selling the work outside of Juneau and hosting more exhibitions in general. They also want to further develop their temporary one-year staff position into something more like a legitimate artist’s residency.

The “Class” model, as opposed to the “Open Studio” model initially seems to be contrary to the basic principles of a progressive art studio. However, on our visit there we found that in effect this approach isn’t necessarily as invasive to the client’s creative process as is often feared. The Canvas does not presently have cause to promote its artists as outsiders (or even as “self-taught”) because the local community, their primary audience, isn’t really concerned with this idea.

Although art making is important and valuable in a wide range of ways for all participants in progressive art studios, it’s in fact only a small portion of these participants that are really appropriate for self-motivated careers as fine artists. The Canvas shows us that artists of this kind, though, are still able to emerge with voices purely their own, even in an environment that’s uninhibited about educating.

8 years into their existence, this is exactly what The Canvas is beginning to discover as a small group of student artists is being identified as independent and committed enough for a new approach. In truth, all programs make this distinction among their artists; the value of openly building this distinction into the structure is an opportunity to create a new model of programing specifically for these artists. This doesn't exist yet, but is something that Manning is working toward building and she sees this “career track” program including a 1:1 fine artist job coach.

Just as the Progressive Art Studio is a variation of the Day Habilitation Program, providing services somewhere in between a gallery and a workshop, the Fine Art Job Coach could include services comparable to that of a manager or dealer - supporting the client in building a portfolio, working with galleries, preparing for exhibitions, commissions, grants, residencies etc.

This great potential articulates the problem with placing all of these artists under the outsider art umbrella. Selling the work in a manner that distances the artist from their support system ultimately seems to inhibit the artist’s ability to eventually become independent.