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
Over the past several years, as work created by artists working in progressive art studios (as well as those historically categorized as outsider or visionary) has entered the mainstream, questions have emerged about how to appreciate and discuss these artists. What does it mean to contextualize this work as fine art? What really defines this categorization? What role should the artist's disability or dispositional narrative play in understanding the work? Responding to these questions often seems to result in skirting or avoiding the consideration of an artist's biography.
Fear of overstating biography is rooted in a fair desire to understand these artists on a level playing field with their contemporaries, trying to avoid both an especially generous consideration and a disparaging framing of “other” (necessarily lesser) - seemingly opposite ideas that are in effect the same, a phenomenon which we refer to as the “sympathetic eye”. This dismissive perspective suggests that this work is compelling and valuable only relative to biography; “this is a great achievement...for a person with a disability” is the most destructive and unfortunate possible understanding. This problem emerges in two distinct and passive ways: as an expression of a commonly held, inherent bias or an escape from the pressure of formulating a critical, thoughtful response. There tends to be a discomfort (even fear) that disability or mental illness elicits because the true nature of their difference is unknown - it remains a great and beautiful mystery. This mystery provides an unsure footing for the viewer, unable to feel (with either praise or criticism), if they understand and are receiving what's being communicated or that they’ll be exposed with their response. And so, the sympathetic eye is easily provoked and often may occur without provocation, or despite active attempts to dispel it in the nature of presentation.
In Nathaniel Rich’s recent piece about Creative Growth in The New York Times (A Training Ground for Untrained Artists), he quotes a 1993 article by Rosemary Dinnage in order to describe the appeal of outsider art: “The fantasy that over there, on the other side of the insanity barrier, is a freedom and passion and color that were renounced in childhood … the longing for a return to something direct and strong and primitive.” Dinnage, and Rich by reference, articulate a sympathetic bifurcation that is false; it’s implicated that mainstream contemporary art (we’ll refer to it as insider art) is inherently more structured and sophisticated (less primitive, less free). If this is understood in terms of biography, the real misconception becomes clear. It’s presumed that biography is important in outsider art and not insider art because the latter has a sophisticated, conceptual structure devised by the artist in the course of intentionally creating works of art (intended to be presented and marketed in the contemporary mainstream), a structure that references western art history and culture. In outsider art, a sympathetic viewer assumes that this sophistication is absent, so biography or a captivating narrative is necessary to take the place of a conceptual structure that provides its context. Thus, the perception is that an artist isn’t being intentional, but instead their disposition is what causes the work to be interesting.
In the presentation of Judith Scott’s Bound and Unbound at the Brooklyn Art Museum, curator Catherine Morris sought to avoid this characterization stating:
We have tried to resist viewing Scott’s lack of speech as a void in need of filling and instead have chosen to focus on what Scott does communicate through her work. Readings that draw on biography to construct narrative interpretations for artists who do not communicate through traditional means have historically taken precedence over other ways of understanding. This exhibition is, in part, an attempt to forefront readings of the work that ask questions without expecting definitive answers or metaphorical readings.
Despite this earnest attempt to challenge the viewer to accept mystery, Cynthia Cruz, writing for Hyperallergic, responded “I question the importance of biography as it is emphasized in the wall texts. This results in silencing the work, turning it into the strange artifacts of a strange, not-understood person,” (Words Fall Away) suggesting that the mere presence of the artist's biography in the exhibition is sufficient to “silence” the artist's voice. Cruz makes a comparison to A Cosmos, at the New Museum, where Scott's work was exhibited without biographical information among insiders of similar sensibility. Certainly integrating works by artists with disabilities covertly into group shows with mainstream artists will effectively evade the sympathetic eye, but possibly at the cost of putting a ceiling on their careers and ultimately perpetuating the stigma that disability should remain hidden.
Beyond the problematic implications of both relying on biography too much or avoiding it altogether, often, actively excluding biography is a disservice to the work. David Pagel, in an excellent review of Helen Rae’s exhibition at The Good Luck Gallery (Exhibition Review: Helen Rae), creates an ideal balance of formal, conceptual, and biographical discussion. His criticism focuses primarily on the experience of viewing the work, with keen observations of her routine, artistic process, and unique way of seeing as they are relevant to her drawings, which ultimately assist in recognizing and appreciating their power.
Rejecting the presumption that outsider or visionary art is to be filtered solely through a biographical understanding, whereas contemporary art always speaks for itself, means accepting the fact that some elements of biography are important to all works of art. A heavy focus on biography is, of course, common in outsider art writing. Discussing his recent book about Martín Ramírez with Edward Gómez for Hyperallergic, Víctor M. Espinosa makes an important distinction between a sociological perspective and a formal one:
It is written from the point of view of someone who is practicing the sociology of art, not from that of a conventional art historian … Sociologists believe that no work of art stands alone like that. It’s not that simple. Various factors play roles in how a work of art is produced and, ultimately, in what it might mean at any given time — social, cultural, historical, economic and other factors.
Traditionally, a sociological perspective (or even anthropological one) is permissible in the discussion of outsider art, but it’s not only to fill a void where the artist's own explanation is absent. Espinosa points out that absent any “sociological perspective” (ie. biography) the evaluation is incomplete. These factors are an unavoidable element of any work; certainly our knowledge of Kara Walker’s race or Jeff Koons’ marriage to Cicciolina, for example, informs our understanding of their work. As Matthew Higgs points out:
I think that that question of the artist’s biography is something that a lot of people have issue with in relation to outsider art. I was wondering why we don’t know more about the lives of contemporary artists, why it’s only when they suddenly get a 10-page profile in the New Yorker that we find out what their parents do. Unless an artist gets to a certain level of visibility, we know nothing really about a contemporary artist’s life. We don’t know about their home life, about their kids, what their kids do, what their parents did, or what their partner does. All of this is regarded as extraneous to the work, which of course it isn’t. It’s central to the work.
This begs the question, though, of what’s really occurring and why it's happening now, if outsiders and insiders are so similar in this regard. The real concern is not the presence of these ideas, but who controls them. Andrew Edlin Gallery’s Phillip March Jones explains the additional roles of an outsider art gallery director with Karen Rosenberg for Artspace:
Someone like Judith Scott … there’s a lot of reasons she wouldn’t be able to [market herself]. And other people are just so involved in the works they’re creating that it’s not really part of their reflective process. A lot of the art we show is created for very personal reasons, usually in private. Often, the artists create worlds they wish to inhabit. Maybe sometimes they don’t know that they aren’t inhabiting them—maybe they live within that work, or maybe the relationship to the work is more important, or real, than the relationships they have in our real world. I think someone like Henry Darger very clearly lived more in his work, his drawings, than in Chicago.
…As dealers in this field we have a greater responsibility to the artist, because frequently you are the one who is making a lot of the decisions that the artist would make. When I work with a contemporary artist, they’re present for the installation—they’re doing all these things that for the most part the outsider artist is not engaged in.
What Jones is describing, in effect, is a process of translation. The trajectory of American art history over the past 100-150 years has been driven by a search for new concepts and divergent ways of thinking. This has always been most notably achieved by including ideas previously considered to reside in the margins - Picasso’s appropriation of the ideas and aesthetics of African art, the inclusion of women in the 60s and 70s, the appropriation of commercial and design aesthetics by Pop artists, current artists investigating race and LGBTQ issues, etc. This process has lead to a situation in which the boundaries of the creative culture are so thoroughly broken down that contemporary artists are expected to invent art for themselves and, in effect, become new outsiders. What remains of our consensus culture is only in the periphery - pristine white spaces, white cotton gloves, and expensive crates. Insider artists create for this context, but it’s social power has become equally available to objects like the quilts of Gees Bend, which once had a context and purpose of their own, if a curator such as Phillip March Jones is able to provide it.
Tom Sachs’ 2007 Space Program took place in the blue chip heart of the contemporary mainstream, Gagosian in Chelsea, but it’s only this context that makes it an insider work. Had he created the same body of work, but instead performed the landing in a midwestern backyard then he would be an outsider - and we may give greater credence to his stated goal of creating as a means of attaining the unattainable in a mystical sense, yet his social commentary most likely be dismissed and pathologized as an expression of some strange paranoid thought process. Those distinctions, however, are less important than the fact that it would still be a remarkable and highly sophisticated work. It is an important revelation that the difference between outsiders and insiders is actually just a few delicate details of circumstance. It’s not a desire to escape the superior sophistication of the mainstream that has lead to the inclusion of outsider work, but that the line between the two is increasingly blurred. From our perspective, these designattions have become obsolete and are more appropriately used in only a historical context.
Unfortunately, the sympathetic eye is almost inevitable and shouldn’t be the responsibility of galleries, curators, or art writers to actively target and discourage this tendency. It is their responsibility, however, to confidently lead by example in a full and fair engagement with the work of these artists as they would with any other, including uninhibited discussion of biography, disability, and the various relevant aspects of lifestyle and disposition that inform the work - a respectful practice of appreciating these works by approaching the unknown with wonder instead of fear. This may mean being comfortable experiencing a work as fiction when it was intended as non-fiction or recognizing that compelling, conceptual contrivances of a neurotypical artist may be just as compelling (or more compelling) as intuitive expressions from an artist with an intellectual disability. Because, by definition, neurodiversity will require communication across profound intellectual differences, including vast disparity in the fundamental nature of our experience - the work must become a point of connection without having to result in a consensus.
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.
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.
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.