Disparate Minds co-founders Tim Ortiz and Andreana Donahue discuss current concerns at the intersection of art and disability studies while highlighting neurodivergent artists’ contributions to the contemporary art discourse...Read More
Recently Disparate Minds had the opportunity to have an encouraging and insightful conversation with Ari Ne’eman about progressive art studios, the incredible work they do, their future, and their relationship to the disability rights movement. Ari is a hero of the movement, particularly as a champion of autism rights and autistic self advocacy; he’s the co-founder and current president of the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and was appointed by President Barack Obama to chair the National Council on Disability’s Policy & Program Evaluation Committee in 2009 (Ne’eman is the first autistic person to ever serve on the council).
As we’ve traveled around the country speaking with directors of progressive art studios, a common concern, almost everywhere, has been how these programs can continue as regulations regarding medicaid services change - that phasing out the practice of providing medicaid funded services in a “congregated” or “sheltered” setting could threaten their existence. Strangely, progressive art studios seem to find themselves at odds with the broader disability rights movement as a direct result of this. As we’ve researched to understand this issue, we’ve found that representatives of the disability rights movement generally just aren't aware that progressive art studios exist or familiar with their impact or importance. Other than a general awareness of the VSA (a network of providers affiliated with the Kennedy Center offering some art related services to children with disabilities), Ari also had no prior knowledge of progressive art studios, had never heard of Creative Growth or Judith Scott, and didn’t know that at the center of our culture, the art world, there’s an incredible shift occurring in the way that developmental disability is currently understood.
During our visit with Creativity Explored director Amy Taub, responding to a question about developing practices to accommodate future regulations (such as an integrated or community based model that works) said “this is what works”. Studios like Creativity Explored have, for decades, provided day programs supporting artists to have independence, agency, and place in our culture to a degree beyond the the most idealistic dreams of any other form of service provider. Championing the voices and ideas of people with disabilities in national and international forums, in public works and large-scale commercial endeavors. And yet, Taub also conceded poignantly that progressive art studios are an incredibly small fraction of medicaid providers for day or employment services.
Furthermore, it’s not only studios that aren’t well known or understood among disability service providers, but art itself. The achievements of artists like Judith scott, Dan Miller, Courttney Cooper, Marlon Mullen, Julian Martin, and Helen Rae feel monumental; it’s easy to forget how small and obscure the art world really is to the majority of the population. The reality is that most people wouldn't know who Larry Gagosian or Jeff Koons are, nevermind Matthew Higgs or Andrew Edlin, even as their influence touches so many aspects of our culture. The social impact of contemporary art isn’t married to public knowledge of its agents; the average IKEA customer has likely never heard the name Donald Judd. The impact that progressive art studios have made and can make, is enormous and unprecedented in history for people with disabilities, even as the most successful examples of artists from progressive art studios remain mostly unknown.
We believe that even though progressive art studios are currently a relatively small fraction of services provided, the work they pursue is essential. We decided to reach out to Ari Ne’eman and discuss this specifically in response to his own comments on the relationship of the disability rights movement to social and cultural change. In this video Ari responds to a question about the lack of social and cultural victories made by the disability rights movement, conceding that the movement has focused on making valuable legal and policy advancements by “soft selling” the cultural and social impact that’s aspired for. He states, “We haven’t excelled at turning out large numbers of people, we haven’t excelled at winning social and cultural victories” and that the movement is “not well-geared towards winning hearts and minds”; as a result of this and the movement being insular in nature, Ne’eman says, “We don't see the broader cultural conversations about disabilities that we see in the context of other identities.”
Winning hearts and minds while creating broad cultural conversation is exactly what progressive art studios are doing, better than any other model for support. We conveyed to Ari the feeling expressed to us by many progressive art studios that “congregating” or “facility-based” programs are unfairly regarded to be necessarily less progressive than integrated community-based supports, arguing that although progressive art studios aren’t integrated spaces in a traditional sense, they affect integration and inclusion in their respective communities and cultures through exhibitions, which ultimately provide a categorically more authentic presence for the voices and ideas of artists with disabilities than simply being physically present does.
We also argue that even though integration is possible and is being pursued by several studios, it may not be without a cost to the studio’s effective functioning, as well as their social impact. Currently, we argued, these studios are emerging in the contemporary art conversation as a new model for artists’ careers and development, and it’s important that this movement belongs to artists with disabilities and their respective studios. Even ignoring the practical disadvantages of transitioning to a system in which artists with disabilities rent studio space to work alongside neurotypical artists (with facilitators visiting to work with them as job coaches), this is a change that would undermine these artists’ ability to make a case for their place in history not only as artists who are successful despite disability and receiving services, but as artists for whom being disabled and receiving services is an integral part of their identity, their lives, and their creative practice. These artists’ disability and dispositions as recipients of services should be understood as a legitimate cause to congregate as artists, because it should be understood as a legitimate way of being.
Ari’s response to this was encouraging and compelling. He expressed that integrating progressive art studios wouldn't have to mean eliminating the studio itself, or even depriving it of its identity as a space for artists with disabilities, it just needs to also be open to artists without disabilities who aren’t paid supports. Ari explained that this isn’t just about the social impact of integration, but also how integration affects the delivery of services. This is something easy to forget, as our focus has been on the handful of studios who are the most progressive and successful in the world, where delivery of services isn’t a concern. Looking more broadly, that there are a great many programs who provide art, even in an open studio setting that aren’t as effective as they should be - who are not as organized, progressive, or person-directed as they should be. It’s undeniable that the quality of services provided by staff would, as a whole, be better if staff were also working with neurotypical artists. In this sense, it’s impossible to deny that if all service providers providing day programs were required to be open and appealing to neurotypical artists using their space alongside artists with disabilities, they would be forced to use more progressive practices. It’s significant that this idea only makes any sense for art studio programs - they’re the only kind of day program that would be appealing to neurotypical artists if they become open to them.
Ari explained that there has been a focus on integrating and improving residential and employment services more than day services, and he committed to us that he’ll keep progressive art studios in mind as attention shifts to day services. In response to our description of the progressive art studio model, Ne’eman emphasized a few key points that will be important going forward:
- Focus on benefit to the individual served
Although the social and cultural impact of progressive art studios and their artists is important, it should never be prioritized over benefit to the individual. This means facilitating and supporting career management in a way that always prioritizes the artist’s wants and needs above all other concerns, including social impact, or benefit to the program or its staff. This means not exhibiting or selling an artist's work if they don't want it exhibited or sold, even if that exhibition would provide valuable exposure for the program as a whole. This also means being very careful about collaborative projects, which are often regarded as a good way to connect with the community, but which could also present a high risk for exploitation.
- Severability of services
The relationship of the program to the artist needs to be such that the artist is able to continue their life and career even if they chose to use another provider. This is a concern that stems from problems identified in residential services in which service providers are also landlords, so ending or changing services means moving out of their home.
For progressive art studios this has important implications in two dynamics of the model. One is ownership of the artists’ works - both physical inventory and as intellectual property. Agreements have to be very clear from the start about how this is managed in the event that an artist chooses to stop being a part of the studio or move to a different studio. The other dynamic is the marriage of habilitation/care services and art facilitation/career management services. Having artists work with artists in the studio is essential, so the dual role of artist staff as facilitators and direct care or habilitation staff is an ideal arrangement. The principle of severability of services would seem to also require that the artist should be able to continue to use the studio even if they prefer to use a different provider for rehabilitation services, or if they chose to discontinue their habilitation or care services. The latter is arguably more essential, and certainly more feasible, as it would simply require that the artist pay for their use of the studio by some other means, as neurotypical artists using the studio would in an integrated arrangement.
Eliminating scheduling of regular hours
One of the essential aspects of a progressive art studio described by Lawrence Rinder in discussion of the Create exhibition was that the artists work in the studio during “hours which reflect the common work hours, five days a week 9-5”. However, artists shouldn’t be in agreement with the studio to attend at certain times as they would attend work or school, but may set goals to invest a particular amount of time and devise plans that use a schedule to meet that goal. In practice, this seems to boil down to a mere matter of language, but it’s based on an important principle; artists in progressive art studios aren’t paid an hourly rate, so they can’t obliged to attend particular hours. Attendance policies or schedules that have a compulsory feeling are left over from less progressive models - an artist's use of the studio should be understood as self-motivated.
The most encouraging insight from this conversation was that the future of progressive art studios may be not only to sustain as regulations change, but to broaden scope and expand as a new definition of what day programming is. If studios are understood not as part of an outmoded form of service, but as the examples of the ideal model for a still relevant and important one, then day programs in general can be redefined, no longer as places where people with disabilities are accommodated, but as spaces for creativity, in which a truly neurologically diverse group of creative people congregate to utilize tools, materials, and work space with guidance and support as needed - spaces that are for expression, entrepreneurship, and all manner of making, whose existence is a statement about the essential relationship of diversity to productivity as paragons of the most extreme expression of those principles.
“I am glad that I had the guts to make these things, and that people like them, because I want them to live for a long time after I am gone.” - Patrick Hackleman
A remarkable aspect of the progressive art studio history is their independent emergence across the world. Creative Growth in Oakland, California is widely regarded to be the first; they were among the first to be established (Gateway Arts in Brookline, MA was founded shortly before) and they were, by far, the first to break into the art market and support artists that are recognized nationally and internationally. However, the relationship of this first program to subsequent programs elsewhere doesn't strictly follow the typical narrative of a pioneering idea. Their legacy is significant; Franz and Elias Katz went on to establish Creativity Explored and NIAD, and many programs have looked to the bay area as they developed (utilizing the example of Creative Growth as a proof of what's possible with this model). However, versions comparable to the progressive art studio are widespread and usually come into being without any knowledge of Creative Growth or any other studio. It has been and continues to be a naturally occurring phenomenon.
Art-making is an intuitive and fantastically effective solution to many of the issues that various service providers for adults with developmental disabilities strive to resolve. As those of us who work within the field understand, the endeavor to provide the least restrictive environment isn’t a merely passive endeavor, It requires a proactive, thoughtful, and ambitious effort to provide not just a safe space, but also independence, validation, and opportunities to make valued contributions in the community. In a setting based on these aspirations, art-making is a perfect answer, and in some form it tends to be introduced at some point, but in most cases with woefully insufficient ambition or perspective.
Once art is introduced in settings comparable to day programs, a door opens and an important opportunity emerges. From that point on, the success of the program is dependent on how much the staff believe in the potential of the works created to be great, meaningful, and valuable - and how they express that belief. The degree of belief spans a vast spectrum, at one end the artist’s potential is overlooked entirely as they’re encouraged to waste time by following step-by-step instructions to create mediocre craft objects, and at the other end their potential is hindered only by the limitations that the art itself has to be great - a limit that has not yet been discovered by anyone ever. How a progressive art studio demonstrates respect for their artists and belief in their potential is first expressed in tangible terms - how the work is handled and presented (in not only exhibitions, but at all times). The standard of these practices sets the tone for every aspect of the studio’s functioning, permeating the culture of the organization and influencing how the artists perceive their own work and potential.
Because progressive art studios don’t necessarily emerge with the intention of becoming fine art organizations, and often exist within larger organizations for which fine art has not been a part of their history or culture, they tend to reside within a system that isn’t prepared to understand the process of maintaining an art practice. As a result, many basic concepts such as the nuanced quality of materials or the concept that a great piece can be ruined very easily, aren’t broadly understood. Advocating for respecting the work and believing in its potential must be a constant effort, on every level, from the working culture within the studio, to the relationship between the studio and both its parent organization and the community; every choice has to adhere to clear principles with great conviction.
High Quality Materials
The first expression of belief in and respect for our artists’ endeavors is the investment we make in the materials provided. High quality art materials are expensive and great art can be made using very inexpensive materials; Henry Darger and Joseph Yoakum created amazing bodies of work in this manner. However, their work has yellowed and faded over time, with restoration efforts already being utilized to preserve their original integrity. The principle that a studio should follow is to use the highest quality archival and lightfast materials feasible for each artist; this must be a highly individualized facilitation process. New, very prolific artists, or artists who haven’t yet matured in their practice may work with student grade materials, but it’s not unreasonable to provide a very expensive sheet of handmade paper to someone who routinely spends months dedicated to completing a single drawing.
A program should strive to develop a budget capable of maintaining a baseline for quality of materials that, at a minimum, accounts for archival integrity while also allowing room for larger investments in artists who demonstrate promise. As often as possible, these investments and the precious nature of materials should be communicated to the artists. Learning to be attentive to the distinctions in quality and craftsmanship of tools and materials is an important aspect of being a visual artist; developing reverence for a beautiful surface or rich pigments can be an important step in an artist's development.
Great Photo Documentation and an Archival System
For a progressive art studio to create a clear and complete archive of works is an ongoing difficult and time consuming task; even medium or small sized programs easily produce hundreds of individual works each month. No other kind of art organization has such a labor-intensive professional archiving process as the progressive art studio; art schools produce a lot of work without storing or documenting it and galleries, museums, and private collections preserve and document large quantities of works, but they aren't created in house. Therefore, developing a great system to achieve this inevitably requires a bit of thought and innovation. Much like great materials, an archival system can be a huge investment (including proper lighting and camera equipment), but the benefits are equally huge.
The best and most thorough studio archive project we’ve encountered is NIAD’s inventory, which is available to view online in the form of a Tumblr blog - a great resource for what an inventory should ultimately look like. At first glance, it gives you an impression of the program overall, listing works by all artists, with the most recent work at the top. What makes it really powerful, though, is its searchability. You can search a specific artist's name to access their complete body of work, as well as search by medium or year.
There are many ways to achieve a similar system offline. The key is that each work have a distinct identity - a unique accession number that’s included in the filename of the digital image and physically written inconspicuously on the back of the work. These numbers can then be used to store Information about the work, including artist name, title, medium, size, framed or unframed, and whether it’s currently part of the inventory or sold previously in a simple searchable document (database or spreadsheet) separate from the images. This can be great resource for the program to track its own progress, to be aware of and critical about its trends.
An archive such as this makes the difference between being perceived and dismissed as a space for recreation or therapy, and being recognized and revered as a powerful and productive cultural institution. It’s also an extremely beneficial resource for gallerists, collectors, curators, and the press, providing convenient access to an impressive collection of incredible bodies of work.
As important as these pragmatic benefits are, though, is the statement and attitude implicit in developing an impressive archive is more important; the work is either treated as if it’s worth documenting, or as though it is not.
A Clean, Ordered Storage Space and Clean, Careful Handling Practices
Many years ago I worked with a young woman who was caught up in a network of behavior modification obsessed service providers carefully executing “proven” methods to move arbitrary behavioral metrics incrementally. Regretfully, I was never able to fully support her to escape this pseudo scientific culture she was immersed in, but I was able to have her attend our studio for a few days a week, where she was provided with beautiful sheets of pristine drawing paper, on which she made fantastic drawings that were subsequently stored away carefully. During this period of time I visited her home, a state owned “intensive care facility.” Standing in her living room, I was struck by what the the physical nature of the space asserted about the relationships existing within. There were small thrift store artworks hung weirdly high on the wall out of reach, thick glass brick windows, and a tv bolted to a quaint, wooden piece of furniture that was also bolted to the floor with a simple, but sturdy iron armature holding a sheet of 1.5” thick plexiglass in front of the screen, to protect it.
The contrast between the sensibility of this environment and the practice of giving her that valuable, delicate sheet of drawing paper, not only without protecting it from her, but with the presumption that when she was finished, it would be greatly more delicate and valuable than before, could not be more stark (and for home staff accompanying her to the studio, this notion was downright counterintuitive). This example is extreme, but defines a stigma that proves to be a significant barrier to any progressive art studio, especially those that exist as a part of a larger service provider. Day hab programs tend to be spaces defined by a preoccupation with safety, filled with reinforced or disposable versions of ordinary objects. Assembly workshop programs avoid jobs that entail the creation of delicate products or handling of delicate parts. In a setting that fashions itself to be a productive environment, the stereotype that those with disabilities are clumsy and careless is insidiously destructive. Progressive art studios’ designs and intentions aren’t just divergent from traditional programs for people with disabilities, but are actually opposed to and incompatible them; as much as they resemble day programs in form, they are, in almost every dynamic, the exact opposite.
A well-maintained and professionally handled inventory of works makes an important statement against this stigma. Progressive art studios need to learn how to handle, package, and store work with the utmost care, not only for obvious practical purposes, but for the sake of the principles that these practices stand for. The understanding that people with developmental disabilities can also create precious art objects worth treating with the highest standards of care is essential to the vision and message.
Like a great archival system, a robust, dependable inventory opens doors for progressive art studios and their artists. A well cared for body of work is an infinitely more compelling proposition to a gallerist than a handful of works carelessly piled onto shelves, stuffed into flat files, or hung arbitrarily on the studio walls. One of the most prevalent, troubling, and confusing phenomenons we discovered during studio visits across the country was artists who were invested in art-making for years having almost no inventory or documentation of work to show for it.
We’ve added a new section on the site for pieces of writing concerning the methodology of progressive art studios. We hope these will be a valuable resource to those involved in this work, as well as anyone interested in this emerging model for artist development. This piece, which discusses the basic, essential components of a progressive art studio, is the first of many. As always, your feedback is appreciated.
“...there was an extraordinary amount of very strong and wonderful work coming out of these three studios…These centers, all three of which had been founded by the same couple, Florence and Elias Katz in the 1970s and 80s based on the same principles…I started to become intrigued by the question of why was there so much wonderful work coming out of these three art centers and was there something they had in common, some kind of methodology that was bringing forth such wonderful art…the methodology which was proposed by Florence and Elias Katz...which had to do with giving adult artists with developmental disabilities an opportunity to work in communal studios at hours which reflected the common work hours, five days a week 9-5, that these centers be connected to the art world, that there be a gallery connected to the studio, that there be not teachers but facilitators who would assist the artists in making their work, and that there would be a sales element.
It’s interesting that the first of these centers was created at
exactly the same moment of Roger Cardinal’s famous Outsider Art definition of
outsider artists being cut off from the world and these centers were radically
connected to the world...”
- Lawrence Rinder, Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, discussing the exhibition Create, which he co-curated with White Columns’ Matthew Higgs in 2011. You can view the full panel discussion “Insider Art: Recent Curatorial Approaches to Self-Taught Art” here
The Create exhibition in 2011 was inspired by the observation that the three Bay Area Katz-founded progressive art studios (Creative Growth, Creativity Explored, and NIAD) have been consistently creating high quality works and using a similar methodology, but without having much contact with each other (or studios elsewhere in the country) since their establishment. Our own research has found that this phenomenon isn’t limited to the Bay Area; studios have emerged across the country since deinstitutionalization began in the 70s - programs where incredible, valid art is created and whose methods include the same basic points. Although many progressive art studios have referred to the Bay Area programs as a development model, most were created prior to any knowledge of them.
The spontaneous, isolated development of progressive art studios throughout the world indicates something important and unique about what these programs are and what they mean. The insight to be gained is that a model of acceptance rather than assimilation is viable and incredibly valuable, if the culture is forward-thinking enough to accept it.
Whereas an assimilation methodology depends on developing a way of working with a person experiencing developmental disabilities that successfully produces the prescribed result (using contrived means to alter a way of being or behavior, to fit given expectations), the acceptance methodology begins with a perceived potential and conforms expectations to meet that potential with an open-ended concept of success. The acceptance model appears spontaneously because the potential identified, the creative person, exists universally. Conversely, the desired outcomes of assimilation methods depend on esoteric “best practices” informed by idealized or archaic concepts of behavior, professionalism, or generally appropriate ways of being.
As Lawrence Rinder points out, for the acceptance methodology of a progressive art studio to emerge and excel, it must simply operate on a handful of fundamental principles:
A radical connection to the world
Rinder references a radical connection, in direct contrast with Roger Cardinal’s definition of Outsider Art which is dependent on artists creating in isolation. A progressive art studio is also radically connected to the world in contrast with traditional services for people with developmental disabilities.
Offering integrated services has long been an ambition of service providers for this population. This is not only because of the proven efficacy of integration, as demonstrated by examples of integrated schools, but also for the sake of cultivating a more inclusive community. In adult life, (post-school) the concept of integration and inclusion is far more complex; everyday life can not be simply “mainstreamed” the way that a school is. Progressive art studios provide opportunities for powerful forms of integration and inclusion that aren’t possible in any other form of support. Successful fine artists such as Judith Scott, Dan Miller, and Marlon Mullen (all of whom have been supported by progressive art studios) are the first examples of people receiving supported employment services who are internationally competitive and influential in their field.
This radical connection depends on the involvement of those at every level of the program who are personally invested in the practice of art-making. The work of facilitators and management must be informed by their knowledge of and personal investment in art (in the context of contemporary international and local culture, as well as art history). Employing fine artists as facilitators and studio managers also allows a connection to develop on a more fundamental level, in the peer relationships between artists in the studio (abstract of being on the providing or receiving end of services). This, in conjunction with the exhibition of artwork, offers unprecedented visibility and presence in the community, culminating in the best possible conditions for the development of genuine professional and personal relationships with other artists who are not paid supports.
Investment of time
Artists having access to the studio and utilizing it for periods similar to regular work hours is extremely important. This point is a matter of principle and a good vehicle for advocacy of the progressive art studio model as a whole.
Often, those involved in making decisions by committee with or on behalf of a person with a developmental disability (including parents, case workers, service coordinators, counselors, and other members of the “support team” who are not artists) will oppose large investments of time in the art studio. This occurs for the same reasons that parents oppose children pursuing artistic careers, schools persistently cut art programs, or illustrators, designers, etc. must argue the details of invoices with clients. Creative work as a valuable professional discipline is stigmatized as frivolous throughout american culture, and pushing for higher investments of time is the front line on which these studios combat this stigma. Although it takes place in a congregated and specialized setting, the progressive art studio is much like a job coaching service for those pursuing serious careers as fine artists.
Schedules should range from 6-8 hours per day and 2-5 days per week depending on how developed the artist is, what other employment services or opportunities they’re engaged in, and how much time they want or need to spend working on art. Generally speaking, artists should be permitted to commit as much time as they want to art-making and should be encouraged to commit as much time as they’re able.
An open studio
The studio must be a space belonging to the artists that’s conducive to creative work, where artists gather to maintain studio practices (not unlike a group of like-minded individuals in any workplace). The concept of the artists owning the space is crucial; providing opportunities for people experiencing developmental disabilities to create art is far more common than actual studios are, and this idea is one of the key distinctions of an approach that’s truly progressive.
There’s an obvious, superficial transition that can be made from a traditional day habilitation program to a shared art studio space. Both are fairly open workspaces where individuals exert themselves productively; several existing studios were once day hab programs or still operate under the pretense of being so in the eyes of Medicaid. However, even if a day hab program shifts its focus completely to art-making and physically becomes an art studio, it’s not a progressive art studio until it achieves a complete conceptual shift of paradigm. The space must be one in which the artists are free to invent and strive to meet expectations of their own devising, not a space where they’re guided to meet the expectations of staff. Any intensive one-on-one, step-by-step directions, or didactic practices must be eliminated. The goal of a progressive art studio is not to provide therapy, education, or any influence of assimilation - it’s to validate an artist’s experience and foster the capacity to share that experience on their own terms.
It’s not necessarily the case, however, that a progressive art studio completely lacks an educational element. For studios that don’t have a limited admission with portfolio review, there’s a large group of new artists working in the studio who benefit from significant initial guidance in order to discover art-making and learn to value it. Also, the studio may need to set boundaries regarding the use of shared materials and it’s important all people using the space conduct themselves in a professional manner respectful of a communal work environment. This should be achieved with guidance and assistance as needed. Ultimately, though, the core goal must always be total creative independence.
A gallery and sales element
The gallery and sales element of the progressive art studio provides at least two essential functions. Firstly, as discussed above, exhibitions of artwork are a powerful form of integration into the community that’s not available by any other means. Even in cases where the artists don’t share a physical work space with other artists who aren’t paid supports, their presence and visibility in the community through a gallery show fosters connections with other artists and the general public on the artist’s terms.
Secondly, the handling and display of the work in a fine art exhibition space allows the studio to set an important example in the community for valuing the ideas and experiences of those living with developmental disabilities. By handling and installing the work professionally and making a meaningful investment of space and time in the gallery, the program makes a profound statement about the value of the artist, their ideas, and voice.
Conversely, handling the work in a manner divergent from accepted standards of a professional artist, ie. overcrowded salon style shows, improperly installed or framed work, or uncritical exhibition of unsuccessful/unresolved works, makes the opposite statement about the work and artists, effectively presenting the work as other and lesser. Allen Terrell, Director of the ECF art centers and affiliated DAC gallery (one of the most professional gallery spaces directly affiliated with a progressive art studio) is driven by a simple principle: don't do anything with the artists’ work that you wouldn't do with your own.