We recently had the honor of guest curating an exhibition at The Good Luck Gallery, an important, new space in Los Angeles. Founded and directed by former Artillery publisher Paige Wery, The Good Luck Gallery is the only space in LA dedicated to showing the work of self-taught artists. Wery fosters the burgeoning careers of artists such as Helen Rae and Deveron Richard, who maintain studio practices in progressive art studios, as well as artists like Willard Hill, who fall into the Outsider, Visionary, or Vernacular categories. Mapping Fictions, curated by Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz, opened on July 9th and will be on view through August 27th.Read More
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.