What is a progressive art studio?

This is a fine art studio environment where adults with developmental disabilities can pursue and maintain lives orcareers as artists.
A wide range of support services exist for this population for employment training, often in conjunction with training for various other life skills. The progressive art studio is a variation on a support model generally known as a “day habilitation” program. A typical day habilitation program mimics a workplace environment and is attended daily, providing training from staff in various kinds of occupational and daily living skills - sometimes very general in nature or specific to a prospective work assignment. The progressive art studio combines this model with a professional artist’s studio. Rather than completing training tasks devised and assigned by others, attendees are facilitated by staff (who are also artists) to navigate the studio environment and understand its potential for productive work of their own devising through the creation of art. 

Essentially, where most day habilitation trains its attendees to complete simple, low-cost, short-term work (assembly, envelope stuffing, custodial, etc.), the progressive art studio instead strives to allows artists to create complex, long-term, high value works of fine art. Rather than attempting to simplify tasks that are counter-intuitive to an individual, the progressive art studio strives to empower one to become productive using the working practices that are intuitive to them already - an acceptance model, rather than an assimilation model.

This practical description of the model makes a strong case for these programs, especially for individuals earning less in a typical day habilitation program than is possible when selling art in a progressive art studio. However, in the studio, reflecting on this practical argument calls to mind St. Thomas Aquinas proclaiming “All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.” The profound power of this model for potentially giving a voice to people in a way they’ve never known before is truly incredible; it’s the paragon of a successful support service, in which artists transcend disability as they take ownership of artwork of their own devising through incredible diligence, commitment, and true brilliance.

What is Developmental Disability?

Developmental Disability is an umbrella term for a diverse range of conditions that create a need for support in those affected. The CDC states: “Developmental disabilities are a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. These conditions begin during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime.” (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/developmentaldisabilities/facts.html#ref)

This includes conditions such as Fragile X Syndrome, Down Syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, and others.

Is this Art Therapy?

No.  It isn’t.

Art Therapy is a complex evidence-based clinical practice designed to use creative expression for psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, administered by board certified clinicians. “Art Therapy” is a term that’s also sometimes used (misused, arguably) to describe art making for therapeutic benefit outside of a clinical context.

It’s important to distinguish the work of progressive art studios from Art Therapy. Firstly, the mentoring in these programs isn’t a clinical practice, and isn’t provided by clinicians. Although there’s almost always an inherent therapeutic benefit in art making, therapeutic benefit is not the priority or interest of the progressive art studio. In fact, the supposition that all services for people living with developmental disabilities must be therapeutic is a stigma remaining from a time when it was believed that these conditions are a problem or sickness to be cured. So classifying or regarding these programs to be within the realm of Art Therapy actually contributes to a regressive and damaging understanding of this population.

What does “Disparate Minds” mean?

Terminology for this population shifts periodically to avoid social stigma that persistently becomes associated with these terms. There was a time when the terms “idiot”, “moron”, and “feeble minded” were clinical terms for what is now known as Developmental Disability. Other descriptors have included handicapped, retardation, developmental delays, among other things. Even though the term “intellectual disability” only just recently replaced “mental retardation” for clinical purposes, there are already many who prefer to use terms such as “intellectual differences” or “developmental differences”.

This difficulty with nomenclature is clearly just a symptom of a deeper cultural problem.  We have chosen to use a new term here not to circumvent use of the term “disability”, but rather focus on the space that is being traversed. By definition, neurodiversity will require communication across profound intellectual differences, including vast disparity in the fundamental nature of our experience - we believe that art is the most immediate and robust way to create a meaningful point of connection abstract of a consensus.  

The success of progressive art studios is not the consequence of any kind of assimilation; instead it demonstrates that the possibility that in a neurologically diverse world there may be profound, valuable, and beautiful connections made among wholly disparate minds.

Is this Outsider Art?

Not exactly. Outsider Art, Intuitive art, Raw Art, and Art Brut refer to a genre that can be generally described as outside of the established art canon. The Outsider Art concept is sometimes convenient or valuable, but has lost meaning and is one we consider to be obsolete as the contemporary art world becomes increasingly pluralistic.  The essential appeal of this categorization has been the romantic idea of an individual inventing art for themselves out of a need to do so, unfamiliar with the pre-existing concept of art-making as a career or cultural institution. This includes the remarkably prolific artist Henry Darger, who wrote and painted alone in his Chicago apartment, never showing his work to anyone. This can also include the work of children, folk art, or aboriginal tapestries, masks, murals, etc.

In the current art establishment, it’s expected for all artists to invent art for themselves; and, inevitably, all genuine art has many personal, private dynamics. Although ideas and philosophy about education varies from studio to studio, artists working in progressive art studios are being facilitated and supported in some way.