Gateway Arts


Gateway Arts, in Brookline, Massachusetts (just outside of Boston) is one of the largest and, arguably, the oldest progressive art studio in the country, originally founded in 1973 (just prior to the 1974 creation of Creative Growth by Katz in Oakland). Whereas the Katz west coast programs closely resembled the model we consider most progressive for a fine arts program from their inception, Gateway grew into this model over time and continues to do so. Today Gateway is an exicting and important program, home studio to many great arstis including Roger Swike (who was included in “Mapping Fictions” at The Good Luck Gallery), Joe Howe (recently noticed by Matthew Higgs for a potential solo show at White Columns) Yasmine Arshad, Michael Oliveira  and many, many, others. The studio currently provides workspace and facilitation to over 100 artists.

Gateway was initially founded in direct response to a deinstitutionalization initiative (then named “Gateway Crafts”) as a weaving and ceramics studio for 10 individuals. Over the past 43 years, the program has grown, evolved, and maintained an effort to stay in touch with progressive ideas. A detailed history of Gateway and their relationship to the emerging progressive art studio movement is detailed in the essay “Outsider Art: the Studio Art Movement and Gateway Arts” by Rae Edelson, who has been the program’s director since 1978.

Yasmin Arshad, Untitled, marker on paper, image courtesy Gateway Arts

Gateway’s rich history is evidenced in their exceptionally dynamic approach to every aspect of what they do - the populations they support, the kind of art created, and methods they implement to promote and sell artists’ work. Even as they participate in fine art exhibitions at high level galleries, craft continues to be an important part of their program in a way that may be somewhat subversive to traditional ideas of fine art. More effectively than any other progressive art studio in the country, Gateway sells handmade craft objects in their own retail store, while also supporting the professional fine art careers of several of their artists.

The studio (a space they have been using since 1980) is separated into several sections, each of which is lead by a staff facilitator; artists rotate among the various work spaces from day to day on a regular schedule. This approach is conducive to (or strongly encourages) artists to work in a wide range of media. This isn’t uncommon, many studios have workspaces for various uses, usually based on media (ceramics, printmaking, sculpture, etc.). Gateway has an exceptionally large number of spaces, providing a wider range of ideas, which have come into being over a long period of time and aren’t necessarily defined by media in the typical sense.

Gateway’s main studio includes workspaces for “Pottery”, “Folk art”, “Fabric”, “Paper, “Weaving”,  and “Art Making”; in addition to the main studio, “Studio A” provides various creative supports and resources for those with psychiatric disabilities. Each area has a supervisor/facilitator who specializes in its respective media and each artist has a weekly schedule that determines which area they work in daily. A potential problem with this complex structure is that it could distract from an artist’s ability to develop a consistent, independent method of working within any one medium. An artist like Roger Swike, however, demonstrates that Gateway leaves room for artists with a well developed vision to operate independently from this structure when they’re prepared to do so.  While Roger may sometimes dabble in other media if he chooses to, he’s free to engage with his own practice of working on paper, that he has developed over the course of his long career with Gateway.

Learning to understand the unlimited potential value of a work of art is an important aspect of being an artist, and an important concept for progressive art studios to endeavor to communicate to their artists. Intuitively, one might imagine that the creation of lower value craft objects in the same space as fine art may undermine the studio’s ability to communicate that concept (and uphold that principle). For many programs, the fine art standard is considered to be directly in conflict with craft for this exact reason. Craft in Gateway’s studio, however, is rooted in a tradition of understanding craft as art on a higher level. Artistic director, Steven De Fronzo explains that during Gateway’s formative years in the 80s, the creative community in the Boston area embraced craft as an alternative to an art world that felt inaccessible, or elitist. In this way, craft was akin to the outsiderism of the time.

The fine art vs craft conundrum has a complicated history in progressive art studios; at its most problematic, craft programs are designed and operated on the assumption that individuals with disabilities aren’t capable of making fine art. In these cases, the studios can become assembly workshops that produce crafty “handmade” objects. In their best form, however, providing resources in a progressive art studio to engage in craft diversifies the opportunities available to artists in a way that is essential. Programs that don’t have an admissions process based on a portfolio review inevitably have many artists who will find craft processes and creativity with functional ends as a more intuitive or appropriate path.

In practice, what's most essential is how the artist chooses one path over the other, and how the standard is maintained - creative projects of any kind are created with as much independence and creative freedom as possible. As the the art world progresses, new facilitators bring new ideas to Gateway - as the use of craft processes becomes more prevalent in contemporary art, the use of craft processes become available in their studio on those terms. Staff facilitators present concepts about art-making in terms of their own expertise; ultimately at any progressive art studio, the onus is on artists to staff as examples, not authorities, with artists making choices about their approach to art independently. The critical element is that this relationship is understood by the staff, and independence or divergence from the structure is encouraged when it begins to emerge.


Full Life

full life

Full Life in Portland, Oregon (founded by Rachel Bloom in 2004) is a unique and dynamic program whose methods are informed by client choice with more depth and ambition than most service providers of any kind that we have encountered. Full Life is funded as a day program and receives no private donations; they’re technically for-profit, although profits tend to go only into the development of more programming. 

Full Life began as an open art studio and is still centered around this format, but now offers a wide range of daily recreational and vocational programs including work in their own “Happy Cup” Coffee Shop, janitorial assignments, employment in a greenhouse and chicken farm, and a wide range of creative arts classes and projects, among many other options. The Full Life staff, a team of 20+ creative people, are all given agency to develop and introduce new programming and opportunities to offer. The schedule is incredibly diverse (and in constant flux), initiating and retiring activities organically. Because staff working directly with individuals are also involved in developing the programming, what is offered (and when) can be constantly tracked based on demand and interest. The art studio portion of the facility is always open for clients to come to between projects or when they lose interest in a project they’re signed up for. 

The program serves around 160 individuals who attend five days per week, split fairly evenly into two 5 hour shifts (morning and afternoon) with a one hour overlap. Their most impressive achievement is that they offer this wide range of opportunity to their large community of clients with incredible flexibility. Each person chooses his or her daily activities at Full Life (not only with a team in an annual or quarterly planning meeting, but independently every day).

This scheduling board hangs in the reception area; the programming offered is updated daily and each person comes to the reception desk in the morning to plan their day - their name is written under the activities that they wish to attend and then staff use this schedule to understand their own schedules for the day. Opportunities on the board include everything from paid employment in the community to foosball tournaments and karaoke.

Steve the Program Director states “everyone has the right to work, if they want to”, elaborating that an individual granted a subsidy to live on due to unique social, physical, and intellectual struggles should be offered opportunities, but not forced to be employed if they’re satisfied with an unemployed life. Full Life is committed to offering individuals the opportunity to excel in whatever manner suits them, rather than attempting to encourage them to be excellent in some consensus paradigm of what it means to be productive or employed. An individual decides whether or not to work each morning and everybody is encouraged to do well in whatever they choose to do. Ultimately, in spite of this unconventional approach to considering employment, Full Life offers about as much traditional employment as any program of its size serving a comparable population. 

The question of whether art is understood as recreation or career isn’t answered by Full Life, but is instead determined by the ambition of each artist. Full Life sells some artwork, but customers are almost exclusively Full Life staff. Artists are permitted to take works home and to make artwork as gifts for friends.

An important lesson to take away from Full Life is the depth of meaning that some of the projects achieve as a result of the cultivation of a community driven by individual choice. Although they don’t tend to produce cohesive bodies of work for exhibition, they do complete works that have deeply understood meaning within the context of the Full Life community.  A large, collaborative, and ever-changing window display is a voice of the community, that is for many a more intuitive way to speak to the outside than a delicately presented gallery exhibition.

These championship belts also play an important role in foosball tournaments that staff person Rob Gray describes as “a very big deal around here.”  Works like these can be viewed as art objects, somewhat like aboriginal masks in a museum case, where the intensity and adoration with which they are crafted could be well understood and respected. But within the realm of Full Life, they have a greater and clearer meaning than they could really achieve elsewhere. Because work is allowed to be entirely personal, many works are kept by the artists or created for a particular person; one could likely collect from the staff offices a very endearing collection of works.

This philosophy grants the freedom for the facility to become an art studio in a more natural sense. It’s a place that not only creates projects, but also explores ideas. Staff are empowered to develop programming at any time and are therefore able to devise projects that respond to the concerns and interests of the artists in the moment. Some projects are intended to develop skills and introduce concepts that empower, others resemble something more like a collaboration between staff and artist (truly between artist and artist). The result is a committed team of staff, an empowered and satisfied group of clients, and an exceptionally strong culture of mutual respect. There are truly beautiful examples of artists enabled to achieve excellence,  such as the poetic works of Marvin Asino, who is supported by Full life to participate in readings and access local creative writing communities. The culture cultivated by Full Life’s deeply person-directed methodology is described by the various creative projects they produce collaboratively, whose sole function seems to be expression of their community, such as this video, “when you least expect it”

Visionaries and Voices

Established 2003, Cincinnati Ohio

The Visionaries and Voices Northside Studio Building in Cincinnati, featuring a mural of local legend Raymond Thundersky

Ohio has a high concentration of quality progressive art studios compared to other states - 12 in 11 different cities across the state. During our research trip, we were able to visit both Visionaries and Voices (V+V) studio locations in Cincinnati. V+V embodies all of the essential qualities of a progressive art studio, providing two fine art open studio spaces that are utilized by more than 140 Cincinnati-based artists experiencing developmental disabilities. The studios are staffed by trained artists who provide non-intrusive guidance and facilitation, and the Northside location includes a professional exhibition space. 

We spoke with Tri-County Studio Coordinator, Megan Miller and the Northside Studio Coordinator Theo Bogen during our visits; both are dedicated to and passionate about the mission of V+V and committed to facilitating the studio process based on what each artist is compelled to make.

an artist's work space in the studio

V+V stands out because of its professional, egalitarian culture. The relationship of the staff to the artists in progressive art studios is often simplified in terms of teaching or facilitating. In practice, the latter is defined by hands-off assistance, allowing the artist to create freely, and the former is a more codependent or antiquated approach defined by teaching or instructing in a didactic sense. V+V not only demonstrates the more progressive approach, but also in a deeper way, shows that this bifurcation is just a piece of a more complex continuum. Artists at V+V work with not only a sense of ownership of their own practice and work, but also with ownership of the entire enterprise, the studio itself. They move freely throughout it, develop personalized workspaces with ongoing projects and materials, and enjoy a peer relationship with the assisting staff.  

This culture may be explained by their unique history. The studio began as a work space for the late Raymond Thundersky (now a local legend), and slowly transitioned into a non-profit program over the years. The workspace was organized by a couple of social workers for Thundersky and a few other artists. The identity of the studio as a workspace provided wholey to a group of artists, as opposed to an art program functioning as a service provider, persists in the culture today, much to their benefit. Most prospective artists hear about the V+V by word of mouth and have an informal artist interview to determine if they’re a good fit for the studio. Ultimately, their admission is dependent primarily on whether they’re interested in working productively as an artist. To be productive, though, is not considered to be synonymous with being prolific, as many artists may be productively and creatively engaged without necessarily producing commercially viable or permanent works. 

V+V's exhibition space

The V+V gallery usually hosts five exhibitions a year, and organizes exceptional group shows. They typically curate thoughtful exhibitions featuring 2 or 3 of their artists in a manner driven by those artists’ ideas. Sometimes artists function as curators as well. Furthermore, exhibition opportunities for artists’ work are sought out at galleries, museums, universities, and other venues on both a local and national level. In addition, a Teaching Artist Program (TAP) is offered as an option for artists that instead have an interest in pursuing visual art careers in teaching, speaking, and other leadership roles. TAP “supports those goals, while offering the community the opportunity to learn about art from a unique perspective. V+V artists who complete TAP courses bring lesson plans to classrooms, community centers, and partnering organizations all over greater Cincinnati. Each artist develops their own lesson plans customized to benefit students of all ages and abilities.”

a portion of the inventory stored at the Northside Studio.


Established 1978, Brunswick, Maine

Spindleworks, a fantastic and accomplished progressive art studio in Brunswick, Maine, was not one that we were able to visit in the course of our research trip last year. Spindleworks is unique from most other studios in that it offers woodworking and has a rich history of Fiber Arts such as wool spinning and weaving. Below is our conversation with Spindleworks' program supervisor, Brian Braley.

Disparate Minds: How did Spindleworks get started initially and how has it developed/progressed in the time you've been there? What are your current goals? What are your long-term goals?

Brian Braley: “We’re trying to prove that people with this unique handicap have a unique vision because of this handicap, a vision that can be presented artistically in a way that is valuable to everyone.” - Nan Ross 1978

Spindleworks was started in the late 1970's by Nan Ross, a weaver and writer from Brunswick. At the advent of deinstitutionalization in Maine it became quite clear that individuals with intellectual disabilities needed a positive alternative that would allow for self-expression, and creativity. At a time when adults with intellectual disabilities were hidden away, and denied rights, Nan believed that creative expression could serve as a method to give voice to their unique perspectives. The initial 6 artists learned to spin and dye wool, and eventually began to work in various fiber media such as rug hooking. Although there is still a strong fiber presence at Spindleworks, we now offer programming in painting, woodworking, sculpture, weaving, embroidery, music, photography, printmaking, video, and theater.

The creative voice of Spindleworks’ artists has also grown over the years and has proven to be an unstoppable force; the artists have developed a reputation of producing high quality work through numerous exhibits including the Portland Museum of Art, Space Gallery, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. Spindleworks hosts a variety of exhibitions throughout the year including juried community shows, themed exhibits, theater productions, installations, and collaborations. One of these collaborative projects is the annual All Species Parade which was created in partnership with Arts Are Elementary (a program that incorporates visiting artists into school curriculum). The parade engages community involvement through the creation of costuming and floats in celebration of the diversity of the planet’s species.  Through the parade and annual exhibit Spindleworks has raised thousands of dollars for a local animal shelter.

We continue to seek the creative and professional growth of the artists we serve.  This is achieved through professional development curriculum that includes portfolio prep, resume writing, business card creation, public speaking, and self advocacy.  Being a professional artist is and should be a career choice for adults with disabilities; many of our artists make more money creating art than they did while holding other jobs in the community. These financial benefits are very important for the artists as the employment options are generally limited in the rural setting in which we reside. Program artists receive 75% of the proceeds from the sale of their art and the remaining 25% goes back to fuel our supply budget. Our long and short term goals are sustainability. We are not currently seeking extensive growth, but want to focus our efforts on generating consistent funds to ensure that we can continue to maintain a safe and beneficial environment for the artists in our community to fulfill their independence.

DM: About how many total artists with disabilities do you support in your studio? Also, how often do they attend and how much time is spent in the studio per day?

BB: We currently support 49 artists from the surrounding Mid-coast and Central Maine area. On a typical day we have as many as 30 artists in attendance. Artists participate in anywhere from 1-5 days a week depending on their desire and approved funding. Our program is a 5 hour day from 9-2 M-Thursday and 9-1 on Fridays. In 2011 Spindleworks started a sister program Spinoff Studios located in Gardiner, Maine which currently supports 18 artists. Spinoff has a morning and an afternoon shift totaling 4 hours each.

DM: How do artists served by Spindleworks find out about and become involved in the art program?

BB: We are well known in the community due to various collaborative efforts with local businesses, galleries, events, and other nonprofits. Additionally, we frequently get referrals from case managers, community members, volunteers, and friends. The artists themselves are our best spokespeople; many of our artists have created their own business cards and use them to talk about their art and our program. We accept only artists with intellectual disabilities that have a strong creative desire. There is a several week assessment period to help determine ongoing interest and potential fit for the program.

DM: What is your philosophy with regards to artist facilitation?

BB: Spindleworks staff serve as mentors rather than teachers. We believe that program participants have an inherent ability to create art and our role is to provide the right tools and environment to promote creative growth. The key to good mentoring is observing what someone can or cannot do on their own and knowing when to offer help. By modeling professional creative practice we encourage independent thought and action, rather than attempting to dictate the creative process. We ask difficult questions which forces the artists to make their own choices, and we don’t hesitate to push the artists to reach their potential. Sometimes it takes that little push to get someone to open their peripheral vision and try new things. We are eternally patient with whatever pace ensues, and unwilling to allow anyone give in to their own doubts. We understand that despite our best efforts that we will often fail and it is through that failure that we are able to use our problem-solving abilities to overcome obstacles. Spindleworks is a non-competitive and non-judgmental environment. We encourage mutual support and maintain a peer helper chart so that program artists can share their skills with others. This has allowed artists to develop self-esteem in their abilities and has led to several artists teaching workshops with skills that they have gained from experience.     

weaving by artist Lloyd Whitcomb

DM: How do you anticipate recent cuts in state funding to impact Spindleworks and do you feel there's a successful way of counteracting this?

BB: The State of Maine is implementing a system known as the Support Intensity Scale which places a number and a value on an individual.  We fundamentally disagree with this methodology as it doesn’t measure people based on their potential. Essentially the harder we work toward someone’s creative growth, the less we would get paid for the service. We estimate that the changes would reduce our funding by 35%. It forces Spindleworks and other similar programs to do more with less. Although the impacts of these changes are not yet fully realized, we have focused much of our energies on developing an action plan to adapt. These strategies may include changing our program structure, growing our revenue stream to include additional grant and in-kind donations, and reduced operating costs through additional efficiency. In the face of these changes, we refuse to sacrifice the quality and safety of our program. We continue to advocate through our government officials the value and need for continued full funding of these important services. Unfortunately, there have been recent efforts in state government to remove the public voice from the equation so that the Department of Health and Human Services can make changes without public forum.

Artist Earl Black at the loom, All images courtesy of Spindleworks

Project Onward

Established 2004, Chicago Illinois

Project Onward was the third studio we visited in Chicago, located in the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport; their stunning 13,000 square foot space includes an expansive studio and three galleries. Project Onward was founded in 2004 by Rob Lentz, Mark Jackson, and Colleen Sims, originally as a Gallery 37 program with only six artists. They quickly became recognized for the talented artists working in their studio and began serving artists throughout the city. In 2013, Lentz and Jackson relocated Project Onward to the Bridgeport Art Center after outgrowing a small studio and gallery space in The Chicago Cultural Center. After nine years as a Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs affiliated program, Project Onward became an independent non-profit that receives no state funding.

Project Onward’s philosophy and approach is distinct from other programs we’ve written about thus far. The key variance, in pragmatic terms, is that admission into the program is dependent on a portfolio review. This means that all of their artists had a creative practice of some kind prior to their involvement with the studio. Project Onward implements this model very successfully and is one of only three programs (that we’re aware of) operating this way. Most programs have basic criteria for the admission of artists; generally, they require some interest in art-making. Project Onward looks not only for interest, but commitment to an established creative practice. As service providers, most progressive art studios are obliged to provide support to as many people as possible who may benefit from their model - the goal is to facilitate individuals with creative tendencies and interests in developing creative practices.

David Holt's work space in the Project Onward studio 

Project Onward’s engagement with its artists, however, is more comparable to that of a gallerist than a service provider, focusing on professional development, exhibition opportunities, and marketing support. For the past year the studio has been completely independent from the task of human services (including Medicaid Waiver funding); thus far they’ve been quite successful in art sales, achieving visibility, and fundraising. They also received a seed grant which covered all costs for the first year. When seeking private donations, they emphasize the promise of supporting artists to create high quality artwork. For the future, their goal is to pursue business partnerships, new revenue streams, and foster opportunities for their artists that extend beyond the studio - residencies, teaching artists, etc. 

In our conversation with Artistic Director Rob Lentz, he asserted that Project Onward’s role isn’t compatible with day habilitation. The incredible work created by artists at Project Onward makes a very strong case for the power of this model. Walking through their galleries, it’s undeniable that a high standard of excellence is present (during our visit work was on view by Michael Bryant, Adam Hines, and Sereno “Glitterman” Wilson), which results in the ideal environment and culture that progressive art studios should strive for. The most important insight to be gained by other studios from Project Onward is the importance of ambition and rigorous criticism, if not in admission process then certainly in facilitation methods.

An installation of drawings on cardboard by Adam Hines. Hines has an inventory of over 6,000 works.

In defense of service provision in the progressive art studio (the ambition to inspire new artists with disabilities to develop creative practices), it should be noted that there are many great artists who would have no studio practice in the absence of initial support and guidance in the studio. Judith Scott, arguably the most successful artist to emerge from a progressive art studio, didn't have one prior to her involvement with Creative Growth (or an interest in fiber art), until she participated in a fiber art workshop at their studio.

Artists from the studio have shown previously at Judy Saslow Gallery and Intuit: Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, among other venues. Recent achievements at Project Onward include the installation of an Andrew Hall piece at the 47th Street Red Line Station in February. Hall was commissioned by the Chicago Transit Authority to create a public work for the station after his proposal was chosen over hundreds of other artists in a competitive selection process.

Sereno "Glitterman" Wilson's work space in the Project Onward studio

Project Onward hosts new exhibitions every six weeks - the current exhibitions on view are Small Wonders through April 11 and Master Builders, a “collection of meticulous blueprints, detailed models, and uncanny drawings of architectural landmarks”, through May 9.

drawing on cardboard by Michael Bryant

The Arts of Life

Established 2000, Chicago Illinois

The second Chicago program we visited was The Arts of Life - a young, principled, and community-oriented program. They’re an independent studio, without a larger support organization, that was founded by artist Veronica Cucilich in 2000. It began as solely a visual arts studio with 12 individuals, but now has two locations in Chicago offering various kinds of support for their artists. Both locations focus primarily on Visual Art, but also offer Music; the North Shore Studio (in Glenview) has mainly part-time attendance and includes Performing Art, a “project-by-project collaboration between The Arts of Life artists and Chicago-based performance makers.”

One of our tour guides, Frances Roberts.

One of our tour guides, Frances Roberts.

During our visit to the Chicago Studio we were given an in-depth tour of the space by two of the program’s artists, Mike Marino and Frances Roberts. The building includes a small gallery space at the entrance, and large converted warehouse studio that includes workspace for painting and drawing, a printmaking press, storage space, and a kitchen break area. The space felt quite open; the artists moved freely throughout and engaged with each others’ work, conveying a real sense of ownership of the studio. Despite the bustling atmosphere, each workspace felt personal - artists surrounded by their ongoing projects didn’t seem to have trouble maintaining focus and developing a distinct creative practice in their respective sections of table space.

We spoke with then Studio Manager Caitlin Law and Development Coordinator Sara Bemer, two of only four paid staff (Studio Manager, Studio Coordinator, Arts Coordinator, and Volunteer Coordinator) working with 30 artists each day at this relatively large program location. There are also 3 full-time and 1 part-time office staff (Executive Director, Development Manager, Development Coordinator, and Executive Coordinator) that split their time between the Chicago Studio and North Shore Studio in Glenview. The program uses a substantial, constantly fluctuating team of interns and volunteers who provide support in all aspects of the program. This structure is the consequence of the program’s strong activist philosophy, or vise versa; in either case, their example provides important insight about the nature of utilizing volunteers in a progressive art studio.

Our conversation with Law and Bemer focused largely on philosophy; they expressed a passionate commitment to their artists receiving respect as professional fine artists and resist working with anyone who describes the artwork using sympathetic or inauthentic language, even if it means turning down opportunities or support.

Arts of Life artist Guy Conners

The Arts of Life’s dedication to their philosophical ideas is integral to the program, because its structure demands constantly teaching new members of their community (volunteers, interns, artists, etc). There are generally 5-10 volunteers at a time, including vocational rehabilitation workers. Volunteers sometimes help with artist facilitation (aided by written instructions regarding materials and intended progression for each piece). Office staff are also required to work one day a week on the studio floor in order to stay informed and maintain communication. For them, perpetually building and maintaining this culture in the studio is a means to raise awareness and educate the outside community. In further support of these ideas, the daily operations of the studio are managed by an egalitarian “system of collective decision-making” in which all aspects, from structure, events, exhibitions, and studio maintenance, to choices regarding language are discussed and voted on in large group meetings in which all of the artists, volunteers, interns, and staff are given a voice.

Arts Of Life colaborations at Terrain, Noël Morical and Jean Wilson above,  Mike Paro and Tim Stone below

In addition to hosting exhibitions in the Arts of Life gallery space, they strive to participate in the local scene frequently. Artist often participate in gallery visits, especially since the studio is located right near the West Loop Gallery District. Notably, work from artists at The Arts of Life has been included in shows at respected Chicago galleries such as Threewalls and Terrain Exhibitions, as well as various retail venues. Vincent Uribe, the Chicago Studio’s Arts Coordinator, has organized The Arts of Life Collaboration Program in which Chicago-based artists pair up with Arts of Life studio artists for a minimum of six months. Most recently, Tim Stone and Jean Wilson collaborated with Mike Paro  and Noël Morical for the exhibition Four Corners, creating two site-specific installations for an alternative space, Terrain Exhibitions, from February 8 - March 3, 2015. Terrain was founded in 2011 by artist Sabina Ott and writer John Paulett.

One of The Arts of Life’s important ambitions for the future is to increase their fundraising revenue in order to be less dependent on government funding, which is particularly sparse in Chicago. It’s clear that fundraising with a genuine commitment to more progressive ideas is a greater challenge than organizations serving this population have faced in the past. Other programs we visited using regressive ideas to interest sympathetic donors raise incredible amounts of money at the expense of alienating the individuals they serve from the community. From a pragmatic point of view, this only has short-term value. It provides immediate funding for great programming and services, but in the long-term it only maintains the divide between this population and the community, while creating a patronizing culture within the organization. This will eventually undermine the programming and ultimately render no actual benefit. Encouraging donors to give in support of the potential and greatness of others proves to be a harder sell than appealing to the desire to enable a group portrayed as helpless. Programs we visited after the Arts of Life have demonstrated that it’s not impossible, so we hope to see this studio continue to promote progressive ideas with growing success.

The Arts of Life Band

The Arts of Life Band

This Friday, March 13th, the Arts of Life Band and DHF Express (affiliated with Project Onward) will be playing head to head for the Fifth Annual Battle of the Bands. That same evening, The Arts of Life will be hosting the 4th Annual Square Foot Show at the North Shore Studio.


Center For the Arts

Established 1992, Palatine IL, provided by Little City

A work from Luke Tauber's ongoing composer series (exterior)

A work from Luke Tauber's ongoing composer series (exterior)

The Center For the Arts (or CFA), which is part of the Little CIty Foundation is located in the Chicago suburb of Palatine. CFA was the first of three excellent, yet distinct programs we visited in Chicago, which has been a greater patron and champion of traditional Outsider Art than any other American city.

Prolific, well-known self-taught artists such as Henry Darger and Joseph Yoakum produced their large bodies of work while living in Chicago, and the appreciation for self-taught artists gained momentum during the 1960’s with the presence of the Chicago Imagists. Roger Brown and the other Imagists were heavily influenced by their work and advocated their validity; SAIC professors Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead were responsible for generating a lot of interest, encouraging students (including Brown) and colleagues to visit these artists and collect their work. The Roger Brown Study Collection features the personal collection of the late artist in his former Lincoln Park home, which includes work he purchased from many wonderful self-taught artists - Aldo Piacenza, Jesse Howard, Darger, and 36 Yoakum drawings.

Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, a non-profit organization with programming dedicated to the fields of Outsider and Contemporary self-taught art, also has an extensive permanent collection. Intuit is an invaluable resource for scholars and artists interested in this field. Their space includes two galleries, the Robert A. Roth Study Center, and the Henry Darger Room, a permanent archive of various materials (tracings, clippings from newspapers, magazines, comic books, personal documents, architectural elements, and furnishings) from Darger’s original home.

Interior of the same work by Luke Tauber.

Interior of the same work by Luke Tauber.

CFA has its own rich history that provides important insight; it was founded as by three School of the Art Institute of Chicago students in 1992 with a progressive philosophy and Fine Arts focus (originally including a Pirate radio station and cable public-access tv show) that has been maintained since due to a fortunate series of quality leaders and staff in the program. CFA now supports a total of about 70 artists with usually 15 attending per day - at least 12 artists are producing high quality work on a professional level. There is no application or screening process, but instead attendance is based solely on desire.

The program is currently lead by the dedicated Frank Tumino, who is really responsible for directing studio operations (with the help of 2 to 3 fine art facilitators) in addition to all of the documentation and promotion of a large inventory of work. This includes at least one artist that was previously in the program, but is now deceased. He spent a great deal of time showing us bodies of work and relating each artist’s process in great detail.

"We Are the World" by Harold Jeffries

Frank also spoke openly about his personal appreciation for and knowledge of Outsider Art, which he had long before his involvement with this studio. Whether or not the work produced in Progressive Art Studios should be categorized as Outsider Art is a point of controversy addressed in our FAQs (link), which has only become more contentious since that FAQ was written. Tumino’s perspective, however, is that this work is as much in agreement with the ideals of Outsider Art as anything else, and points out that Adolf Wölfli, one of the first artists to be assigned this label, created work with the intention of selling it. The line between Outsider and mainstream art has also become increasingly blurred as a result of many contemporary artists borrowing heavily from this aesthetic. An important insight to be gained from this is that whether it is or isn’t, at the very least, this work shares certain qualities associated with Outsider Art, such as the significance of biography to the work. Frank’s writing about the artists provides a great example of how biographical elements can be included in a respectful and appropriate manner. About the work of Harold Jeffries Tumino writes:

Nearly every piece has as its basis a gridwork of lines, forming squares, rectangles, circles and other forms which resemble an isolated section of a vast blueprint outlining some lost Minoan palace.  If asked, Jeffries will tell you that these are indeed blueprints.  They are part of his lifelong obsession to create blueprinted plans for Heaven. This project has no beginning, middle or end. The portion of the plans that Jeffries draws at any one time simply reflects his thoughts at that moment, and do not advance the project along any conceivable time line, a fitting solution for planning what is infinite and eternal.    

Biography isn’t presented as as a struggle that was overcome, but as deeper truths about a man, his life, and his ideas that are uncovered through the examination of his artwork. Biography becomes important in Outsider work not necessarily because these artists led particularly compelling or difficult lives, but because being free from outside influence allows their work to be a more genuine expression of their humanity, ideas, and lives. During our visit, Tumino demonstrated this as he showed us an archive of works by the late Charles Beinhoff; he affectionately discussed Charles’ tendencies and ideas as though he knew him personally, although he has come to know him only through the process of cataloguing his work.

Frank Tumino with the work of Charles Beinhoff

Frank Tumino with the work of Charles Beinhoff

CFA’s deeper appreciation for Outsider Art permits a broader understanding of what Outsider work can be, informing the nature of the studio facilitation, which ultimately leads to more effectively empowered artists. For example, Luke Tauber is supported to create digital collages and videos, which other studios may fear isn’t Outsider enough or is introducing an idea that’s too new. In Luke’s case, though, it’s necessary to facilitate a more complete and genuine creative practice. The 2013 documentary Share My Kingdom, which was included in the Athens International Film and Video Festival, provides a more comprehensive profile (in both biography and artistic process) of CFA artists Tauber, Harold Jeffries (discussed above) and Wayne Mazurek.

Above all else, there is an atmosphere in the CFA studio of reverence for the creative process and the artists who engage in it there. Artists from CFA have shown previously at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, the Museum of Everything’s Exhibition #4 in London, and the Rockford Art Museum, in addition to other venues.

The Arc of the Arts

Austin, Texas

Arc of the Arts is an ambitious studio located in Austin, Texas. They’re a program within The Arc of the Capital Area, which is an affiliate of the National Arc, a non-profit organization with locations throughout the country. This studio program is the only one we’re aware of that’s part of a national Arc chapter.

The Manager of this program, Ann Wieding, who has a formal background in Art Education, has implemented many good ideas in the studio. Wieding previously worked at Full Life in Portland and one of the program’s other teachers completed her Master’s thesis on programs of this kind in the Bay Area (particularly Creativity Explored, where she spent a week). The nature of the program reflects a familiarity with these practices, but takes a different approach.

It’s become clear over the course of our studio visits that the idea of understanding art as a career is the one of the most unresolved and problematic aspects of this model for support. Wieding’s approach to this is to view the program as a post-secondary education rather than as an employment provider, and teaching a full range of occupational skills integral to a career in art. This includes marketing, writing statements, self-promotion, and discussing  the work; the artists frequently engage in critique, activities in which their teachers role-play as prospective customers, and critically reviewing information and photos on the website. Important topics also addressed.are copyright issues and developing original imagery as an artist.

A work in progress by Kelly R.

A work in progress by Kelly R.

The program is relatively small, serving a total of 75 artists, with between 15 to 20 on a professional artist track. There are currently three instructors with backgrounds in Art Education, Creative Writing, and Digital Media (two full-time and one part-time) plus Ann, whose office is open and available to the studio and gallery. The instructors form units with the artists for one-month periods, conducting programming that reflects their respective fields. Training offered also includes Photoshop, photography, film, etc., with future plans of a computer lab for other technology based projects..

A typical day here begins with a morning check-in, brief introductions of any newcomers, and then a short lesson (often lead by a studio artist). The program has classes each day  to introduce various ideas, but they’re normally only 15-20 minutes long. Once this project is completed, the artists work freely. The day concludes with a one-on-one staff member critique. This combination of teaching sessions and open studio time mimics a post-secondary art school; more didactic teaching can be provided through this approach because there’s a tangible distinction between the structure of a studio artist’s experience in learning projects and independent studio work.

David M.’s graphite drawings stood out, the long horn steer frequently appears in his work

David M.’s graphite drawings stood out, the long horn steer frequently appears in his work

Arc of the Arts’ gallery is located in their studio, which most often only receives foot traffic from those visiting the Arc offices for other interests. Other studios are either independent (Creative Growth and Project Onward) or physically separate from the larger organization they’re affiliated with (Gateway, LAND, Pure Vision), which seems to be more advantageous. Arc of the Arts has also had several exhibitions in the local community (solo and group shows), as well as participating in calls for art, juried shows, and city wide art events such as the WEST Austin Studio Tour.

Arc of the Arts also partners with a nearby high school Special Education program in the effort to transition graduating students into the studio. This is important, since there seems to be a lack of awareness about Progressive Art Studios, or visual arts careers among Special Education in general.

The VSA North Fourth Art Center

Established 1981 Albuquerque, New Mexico

The VSA North Fourth Art Center has quite a large day habilitation facility located on Fourth Street including traditional, structured visual art classes. Here artists are referred to as Apprentice Artists and staff members as Teachers, with the artists having direct input about the classes offered. Guided instruction is provided for 16 week trimesters in a wide range of media - painting, printmaking, ceramics, filmmaking, dance, theater, and literary arts. New Mexico requires a 1:5 ratio and outings 50% of the time. The outing requirement can be a hardship and distracting, but otherwise this program doesn’t yet feel pressure to restructure due to Employment First.

Curious, beautiful New Mexico

Curious, beautiful New Mexico

The Kennedy Center’s VSA program was once an ambitious organization founded by Jean Kennedy Smith and is still fairly far-reaching. VSA’s presence in North Fourth’s official name is actually the only connection that remains to the organization. The VSA claims to have affiliates across this country and 50 others, but the scope of services they provide is really quite minimal. Many of these affiliates provide accessibility consultations to art museums and programs for only children with disabilities.

The Kennedys’ relationship to this population is a fairly well known, sad history that resulted in a series of programs. Unfortunately, many of these and affiliated non-profit organizations still shed a patronizing light on  the individuals in attendance. Although their work has been beneficial in raising awareness about general needs of this population since the 70’s, the current, diminished role of the VSA should be understood as progress.

A North Fourth class in session

A North Fourth class in session

As we discussed the concept of art careers with Head Teacher Sherilyn, she related that some of the artists have asked when they’ll advance beyond the apprentice stage.  This presents an important insight.  North Fourth is operated primarily by teachers with Art Education and Art Therapy backgrounds; consequently, the model they’ve developed for the program consists primarily of classes taught in a traditional sense and is too didactic to be categorized as a Progressive Art Studio. That a student may be independently compelled to ask about advancing beyond the apprentice stage is indicative of the fundamental value and importance of having career options available as an artist. Sherilyn expressed that North Fourth is interested in responding to this inquiry by allowing program growth and eventually offering art not only as education or recreation; this could include something akin to a Progressive Art Studio. The program already exhibits the potential for this in a smaller, adjacent studio developed recently after a teacher’s visit to Creative Growth - we look forward to seeing how this progresses in the future.

Hozhoni Artists

Established 1995, Flagstaff AZ

Hozhoni Artists is a small program (part of a larger organization) that was founded in 1995 by its current director and specializes in providing social services to the Native American population in Flagstaff, including a respite/life skills day program and residential services. This studio has about 20 full-time artists in attendance, who produce fascinating and incredible work that often combines Native American traditions and aesthetics with those of Contemporary Art and daily life with a profound sense of authenticity.

The studio workspace is spread across several rooms in two buildings, the larger one being designated to the most focused artists. The artists are supported to draw and paint, weave, and create some sculptural objects using paper or wood. The staff working in the Hozoni studio do not necessarily have a creative background at all, but in spite of this Hozoni seems to do very well to maintain a progressive, non-invasive approach to supporting and facilitating the artists. The format is an open studio, each artist has a support staff assigned to them, and staff to artist ratios are determined based on needs that aren’t necessarily related to art making. Traditional Native American techniques and aesthetics aren’t taught in the studio either – any traces of this found in the work have been passed down by family members at home.

A new dynamic of the Outsider or Contemporary Art debate for these studios arises here. Like the work coming from Progressive Art Studios, Native American art may also be Outsider or Contemporary, but this distinction is typically more definitive. Outsider Native American works are historical artifacts, or works made strictly within the complex creative traditions of Native American cultures for the sake of continuing those traditions, whereas Contemporary Native American art is made by Native American artists (such as Jeffrey Gibson, Wendy Red Star, or Brad Kahlhamer) who re-examine Native American identity and aesthetics through liberated practices of the contemporary fine art world. Hozhoni’s artists fall clearly within the latter category.

Painting by Edward Haswood

Painting by Edward Haswood

For instance, Edward Haswood’s paintings and drawings reflect a unique combination of folklore from both his Navajo and Hopi heritages. He’s very familiar with traditional Native American art present in his family life and community, and there’s a significant market for it in Flagstaff. What Edward does, though, isn’t traditional at all, it’s something new and a distinct while maintaining a nuanced presence of traditional Native American imagery.

Miranda Delgai is a fantastic artist who comes from a family of traditional Navajo textile weavers. She  works with wool on a traditional Navajo loom, but incorporates unconventional, even taboo imagery. The piece below is unusual - in Native American culture owls are an omen of bad luck and imagery of them is normally avoided.


Textile by Miranda Delgai

Textile by Miranda Delgai

Hozhoni exhibits their artists’ work and host events in a gallery space adjacent to the main studio, but its location isn’t conducive to regular foot traffic. In the future, Hozhoni hopes to establish an exhibition space in downtown Flagstaff. The experience of this gallery would be intriguing since they would be accessing buyers of Native American art, but presenting work that’s much more contemporary.

Creative Growth

Established 1974, Oakland California

Creative Growth was the first of the Katzs’ three bay area programs and, at 40 years old, is most  likely the oldest Progressive Art Studio. Among this field, Creative Growth is widely understood to be the studio that is most recognized and connected to the contemporary art market, and has served as the initial inspiration for many others to create similar studios across the country.  Many of their artists have exhibited internationally in prominent galleries and museums such as White Columns, Gavin Brown Enterprises, Gladstone, Ricco Maresca, Andrew Edlin, the Museum of Everything, the American Folk Art Museum, etc.

We stopped by Creative Growth’s impressive Oakland studio and were given a very brief impromptu tour from their rising star, Dan Miller. Unfortunately, though, we weren’t able to speak with any staff or formally tour the studio; the day we visited they were busy preparing for the 40th anniversary Gala.

Judith Scott. Untitled, 2004.

Judith Scott. Untitled, 2004.

Creative Growth often participates in high profile art events and are extremely successful in both exhibiting and selling artists’ work.  For example, “Bound and Unbound” is an upcoming retrospective of the late Judith Scott’s prolific 20 year career at the Brooklyn Museum (October 24, 2014 - March 29, 2015). She remains the most famous of Creative Growth’s artists and this marks the first museum exhibition of her compelling sculptures, in addition to previously unexhibited works on paper.

Creative Growth is the program that brought this model, and this concept to the art world in terms of Outsider Art. What they’ve achieved in this manner is incredible and commendable. It’s important to note, though, that the propagation and development of this model by other organizations hasn’t been a benefit to Creative Growth, and in some ways has been detrimental to them.  An abundance of Progressive Art Studios dilute the romance of the Outsider image, so the future of this concept can no longer rely on replicating this success story.


Established  1982, Richmond CA

NIAD is the smallest of the three programs in the Bay Area started by Katz, serving 60 clients (about 30 at a time). It’s located in Richmond, a district in the Northwest corner of San Francisco, which is fair to describe as “out of the way”.  NIAD, Creativity Explored, and Creative Growth all made location decisions many years ago that have proven to be very significant. CE rents in the hip Mission District, accessing valuable foot traffic for the gallery. In exchange for being remotely situated, NIAD owns a beautiful building that presents their program excellently (Creative Growth both owns a great building and is in a great location).

NIAD’s studio structure fits the standard model developed by these Bay Area programs - an open studio overseen by a team of teachers, each specialized in a particular media. The studio is separated into stations, with an amorphous system for determining who works where at what time. Generally, clients are encouraged to alternate stations and have the opportunity to learn a variety of methods.

NIAD also uses a tier system to denote where each artist is situated professionally, although it’s not as rigidly structured or administered as others. Timothy Buckwalter, the program’s enthusiastic Director of Exhibitions and Marketing, uses a baseball analogy to describe their tier system: artists are categorized as Major League, Minor League, or Recreational. Recreational tier artists participate primarily for socialization and leisure, Minor League artists take their work seriously and strive for creative careers but aren't fully developed yet, and Major League artists are mature, committed artists with well-established voices and practices.

Painting by Sarah Malpass

Painting by Sarah Malpass

We met with Timothy Buckwalter, which was supplemented by discussions with a few of the teaching staff.  We weren’t able to speak with Deborah Dyer, the program’s Executive Director. Based on this we can interpret that NIAD is excited about promoting a contemporary studio and gallery, but perhaps isn’t as concerned with service provider ideology or philosophy - for them, these ideas are entrenched in the program’s history and established in the program’s culture.

A sense of the program’s ideas is well articulated, though, by the gallery space. When we arrived, Buckwalter was busy installing What Are Words For: The Language Pieces of Sara Malpass. The show included three distinct bodies of work from Malpass – hand-written lists on notebook paper, text paintings, and ceramic sculptures depicting Sara’s words. The simple list works are clearly the purest; Malpass had been making these prior to NIAD or any exposure to art-making. This could arguably be understood as her “outsider” work.  The paintings appear to be the result of teaching and exposure to new media and ideas in the studio and they effectively demonstrate how this kind of support allows an artist like Malpass to develop her body of work. The ceramic works are a step further removed. They’re traced from text paintings by a studio assistant and could possibly be described as experiments invented to expand the range of her voice (passively permitted by Malpass into her oeuvre) rather than actively devised and manifested independently.

Ceramic Works by Sarah Malpass

Ceramic Works by Sarah Malpass

An important philosophical conflict emerges here. A purist, true to the original concept of programs facilitating artists, would only approve of the list works on paper. If this purist idea is largely based on making the point that these artists don’t need any outside influence to be great, then it’s flawed, because these artists deserve as much outside influence, support, and opportunity to benefit from learning as any other artist. The most appropriate kind of support tends to occur naturally when teaching artists spend time with the client artist and inevitably develop a peer relationship. Through this relationship, they learn to understand their student and enable them, rather than simply trying to improve their work. A program must make a distinction between art that’s devised by a teacher or collaboratively with a teacher based on a thorough understanding of the students’ independent concepts and intentions in order to maintain a well-defined line between the artist’s work and products based on their work.

NIAD is looking for ways to expose their artists’ work to a larger audience. Although their exhibition openings tend to be very successful and well-attended, they don’t have the benefit of regular foot traffic that their counterparts do elsewhere.

Just recently, they premiered an “affordable art online” exhibition series, a weekly website feature; a guest curator organizes a collection of works from their large catalog to be available for sale online ( check it out here).

A compelling and unique practice that NIAD has implemented is exhibiting work by artists outside of the served population explicitly for the benefit of the studio artists. This is an excellent example of new integration methods that are integral and unique to Progressive Art Studios. It exposes NIAD’s artists to contemporary art that may echo their own processes, while allowing them to recognize themselves as part of a larger professional community. Re-defining community integration to include these ideas is absolutely crucial for the future of these programs. Supporters of this population (especially of initiatives like Employment First) tend to have an oversimplified understanding of integration to mean working in the same physical space as others who don’t live with disabilities. Practices like this demonstrate that integration, understood more thoughtfully, can result in a much more beneficial and meaningful experience.

Creativity Explored

Established 1983, San Francisco

Creativity Explored is one of three significant programs in the Bay Area, all of which were founded by Florence Ludins-Katz and Elias Katz in the late 70s and early 80s. Each of the three (Creativity Explored, NIAD, and Creative Growth) are separate, independent organizations whose directions of development have diverged under different leadership.

Creativity Explored, located in the Mission District of San Francisco, is the second of the three (founded in 1983), and has been operating under the leadership of Executive Director Amy Taub since 1999.

The heart of this program is an open studio where artists work as freely as possible with the support of a professional artist staff. The basic Progressive Art studio concept was invented by these pioneer Bay Area programs and it’s for which they’re still viewed as an authority. Creativity Explored proved to be the most interested in sharing information to foster a greater understanding of the dynamic potential of this model for support. Consequently, they’re the largest of the three, not only in terms of number of clients, but also in the scope of services provided.

The studio implements a thoughtful structure, which outwardly seems complicated, but works well. There are around 10 teachers, each directing a work area comprised of a few tables, supplies, etc. The artists are on a rotation schedule, but how often they move and which teacher they work with is carefully decided by the studio manager (depending on who works well together and what they’re working on). As a general rule, specific projects don’t move to another work area; the teachers hold onto any ongoing projects, which will be resumed upon the artist’s return. This system allows each artist to work with several teachers without inhibiting their ability to develop cohesive bodies of work (this sometimes becomes a problem in other studios that require artists to rotate). The team of teachers is comprised of experienced fine artists with active studio practices, but with a diverse range of backgrounds: performance, industrial design, conceptual art, dance, etc. Many have been working at Creativity Explored for 10-20 years or more.

Creativity Explored has a well-developed tier system for categorizing artists, which consists of three tiers: Beginning, Emerging and Established. There are specific guidelines governing this system; each artist starts as a Beginner and may advance to Emerging once they have achieved $2000 in sales within a 2-year period. Emerging artists work with higher quality materials and receive more advanced documentation/promotion services. The highest tier of Established artist is an impressive and ambitious ideal that still exists only in concept, as thus far no artist has achieved it. An Established artist is essentially supported to become self-employed, pursuing an independent and robust fine art practice including a business license, portfolio, gallery representation, and so on.

CE invests a great deal in the marketing and promotion of their artists’ works, including the employment of a dedicated Preparator, Gallery Manager, and Marketing & Business Development Director (whose role is comparable to that of a fine art consultant). They exhibit works in their own gallery space and strive to find exhibition opportunities for their artists outside the studio, including placement in commercial spaces and working with designers to secure image licensing opportunities. CE strives to avoid letting commercial opportunities compromise the works’ integrity by maintaining certain detailed standards that have the strange effect of institutionalizing arbitrary fine art tendencies (ie. as a rule, accepting commission parameters for the dimensions of the work, but not accepting parameters for color palette).

Amy Taub cautions against any new or small program to attempt licensing; selling imagery for product use is an exciting idea with a lot of potential, but legally it’s complicated and perilous. CE’s licensing program is surely the most sophisticated of any Progressive Art Studio.  This is the result of investing a lot of time, money, and legal risk, in addition to fortunate partnerships with designers (such as Crate and Barrel). Despite this, though, it feels like CE is hesitant to definitively call the endeavor worthwhile.

CE has a storefront gallery on 16th Street, adjacent to the studio space. On average they present seven exhibitions a year, primarily in the form of themed shows organized by staff members. Occasionally a show will be curated by the artists. The exhibition programming is developing, which includes moving toward incorporating more solo shows. The introduction of critique is also a goal for Taub; she wants criticism (which she considers to be an important aspect of the process) to be part of the artists’ studio practice and believes that the ability to introduce and speak about their work is important. In the interest of this, the program has begun having artist presentations at schools; eventually they hope to host regular artist talks at the gallery. Criticism has been an emphasis in our experiences as both art facilitators and practicing artists, so we greatly appreciate this intention.

Creativity Explored is an excellent and experienced Progressive Art Studio. Like all three of the Katz’s big Bay Area programs, they’re qualified to be leaders in this field, but Creativity Explored seems to take this role the most seriously. This sense of leadership and responsibility manifests itself in their openness and willingness to share ideas and information; CE was the only of the three programs where we were able to speak directly to the Executive Director, Amy Taub, who was richly informative, insightful, and passionate about her role.

Beyond this, this leadership informs the direction in which they strive to advance and expand. CE works with a forward thinking, experimental sensibility, hoping to lead not only by example, but also by becoming the program of the future.

Regarding the future and development of the program, Taub’s focus seems to respond to the  impending implementation of new regulations driven by Employment First.  She states quite plainly that there’s no current need to increase the program size or change it significantly. Taub describes Employment First, though, with a great deal of concern. From her perspective, it’s a large and powerful movement not compelled by the needs of the relatively small portion of the population involved in art programs. To have any future at all, CE must adapt to the system that Employment First envisions, which is one without any day programs. Development of CE’s sophisticated tier system is one approach to this challenge, but Taub is currently working to devise an approach even further outside the box - maybe even one that in the long term doesn’t include a studio.

An important insight from our visit to CE came from a few of the teaching staff regarding their sometimes controversial role - whether the artists are outsiders, self-taught, or comparable to students is actually irrelevant and it doesn't matter whether a staff person considers themselves to be a facilitator or teacher. The most important quality is that they take art-making seriously and respect their clients as artists. There seems to have been a broadly embraced shift in thinking over the past several years that the work made in these studios isn’t really outsider art and the staff aren’t just facilitating. The distinction between one way of thinking and the other is described by staff in abstract, philosophical terms; the approach and practice of someone who has 30 years of experience as a staff person are clearly subject to no ideology. Whatever function they ultimately serve (teacher, mentor, assistant, or collaborator) is the natural result of a mutual respect between between peers.

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.

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.