July 14, 2009


A few weeks ago, a discussion began in the comments of my post about NIAD.   Though that conversation was specifically about mentally and physically disabled artists, it has prompted me to consider more broadly how the categories of “insider” and “outsider” might apply to the current climate for art and visual culture. Since there are many possible ways to approach this topic, I’m going to address it from different angles in a series of posts over the coming weeks.

Initially, I want to address the question of whether and how the disabled artists served by organizations like NIAD and Creative Growth are marginalized from the contemporary art establishment. Most are not represented by traditional art galleries or collected by art museums — though SFMOMA does have a work in its collection by the late Judith Scott, a Creative Growth artist with severe Down’s Syndrome. In fact, Creative Growth artists including Gerone Spruill and William Scott (no relation) have been fairly well represented within the contemporary art market, with exhibitions at commercial galleries including Rena Bransten in San Francisco and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York. Creativity Explored artist John Patrick McKenzie — currently in the juried show “Bay Area Currents” at Pro Arts, which I mentioned in an earlier post — has likewise exhibited, both nationally and internationally, in galleries that do not traditionally show “outsider” artists.

All of this to say that, while disabled artists continue to be underrepresented in the mainstream, they are not absent, and interest in their work is growing. I would argue that art world interest in disabled artists is on par with its interest in other marginalized communities, such as self-taught artists and artists of color, and that the reasons why are also somewhat similar. Each of these groups of artists is primarily served by a network of community-based arts organizations that tend to emphasize the creative process over academic, historic or commercial concerns. The difference in priorities across grassroots cultural centers, universities, museums and galleries makes it especially difficult for artists to leverage community support for broader exposure.

Too often, it seems that the art system is predisposed to exploit the cultural producer/artist, while the latter is hard-pressed to advocate for his or her own best interest even when disability is not a factor.  Even many artists with the “insider” status of an MFA are unable to do so. Perhaps the definitions of “insider” and “outsider” are variable, and depend on circumstances. Over the coming weeks, I’ll dig further into what some of those circumstances might be. In the meantime, check out this interview that Proximity Magazine recently published with Renny Pritikin, a longtime Bay Area curator who has spent much of his career dismantling the barriers between “insider” and “outsider”.

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