Outsider art, since its conception by Jean Dubuffet and Roger Cardinal, has had a complicated relationship with the many disparate and marginalized communities that it has come to represent. The developmentally disabled community is no exception tothis limitation. While the recognition of work by artists of different abilities is important, the other-ing of any artist is damning to the person and the community.
Pam Rogers, the director of Pure Vision Arts, understands the intricacies of providing support without marginalization as well as the larger needs of the developmentally disabled community of New York City. She explains, “There was a need for an art space where people with autism could come together to work and be supported as serious artists. The mission of PVA is to develop the capacity for creative expression while increasing a sense of personal identity through the creation of art.”
Founded in 2002, PVA provides studio space, art materials, instruction, and exhibition opportunities to its members. Other organizations that offer art to the adults with developmental abilities that they serve may focus on specific facets of art’s relationship with their members—arts education, art as recreation, and art therapy—but PVA is a creative arts center, meaning it works to create opportunities for artists through the professional development of their art.
The purpose of a creative arts center is to act as facilitator for its artists, explains Sophia Cosmadopoulos, client coordinator of a Brooklyn creative arts center, LAND Gallery. “We strongly believe in the incredible talent of each artist at LAND, and want to provide a space and community that allows for experimentation and independent portfolio development. Our role is to provide high quality art supplies, framing, and opportunities to exhibit and sell their work.”
In some cases, creative arts centers are the first time a person explores their artistic potential, but oftentimes, members grew up with art. That was the case of Eric Sadowsky, who aged out of the traditional education system at 21, he entered PVA in 2012. His placement at PVA wasn’t always certain though, and not all high schoolers with developmental disabilities are as fortunate. This placement was particularly exciting for Sadowsky because he grew up playing in his mother’s art studio.
One of the most noteworthy success stories of the creative art centers, and an example of outsider art’s inclusion in the mainstream art narrative, is Judith Scott. In 1987, Scott moved to Berkeley to live with her sister, and it was there that she was introduced to fiber art at the Creative Growth Art Center, the first center of its kind.
Founded in 1973 by Elias Katz and Florence Ludin-Katz, Creative Growth was revolutionary in its conception of creative development as a means of providing an opportunity for fulfillment, and it acted as a model for PVA and other inclusive studio programs that enable self-expression.
Because of her time at Creative Growth and the introduction to her favorite medium, Scott’s work has gone on to become part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, amongst others. Additionally, her first comprehensive solo retrospective exhibited at The Brooklyn Museum in 2014 and 2015. Just as Creative Growth set a precedent for other studio programs, Scott set a precedent for other artists building bodies of work in creative arts centers.
This is precisely the goal of the centers, explains Cosmadopoulos: “We work in collaboration with dealers, collectors and curators to promote inclusion and exhibit their art to a wide audience in galleries, museums and fairs. One of our most significant events is the Outsider Art Fair, which is an amazing opportunity for our artists’ work to be included in the wider world of Outsider Art, Art Brut and Folk Art.”
Indeed, the 2016 Outsider Art Fair brought together LAND with PVA, Creative Growth, amongst other tradition galleries and studios that were given the chance to exhibit. Events such as the Outsider Art Fair foster community, opening the sometimes occluded mainstream art world to discussion of and amongst self-taught artists.
But the fostering of a community and the fostering of a category are not one and the same. The Huffington Post’s Priscilla Frank argued, in “Should We Stop Using the Term ‘Outsider Art’?” that the term can be exclusionary and limiting, despite offering some populations a first step into the larger world of contemporary art.
Frank lays out the complications in art world terms, as they incorporate marketing value and categorization alongside political correctness. Even the godfather of Outsider Art, Jean Dubuffet, used highly problematic language, referring to the artists he discovered in psychiatric wards as “primitives” and “savages.”
With such exclusionary terms used in association with Outsider Art, it is the job of creative arts centers and other programs to put the focus on the artists and their processes, not the labels and categories.