In 2020 as the pandemic spread across the globe, Arts Project Australia partnered with UK-based Slominski Projects and Jennifer Lauren Gallery to form Art et al. This was in direct response to an identified need for more inclusive programming and better access for neurodivergent, intellectually, and learning-disabled artists to be seen, heard, and to participate in the arts. Art et al. is shaped by Australian and UK advisory groups of artists who self-identify as neurodivergent, and/or intellectually or learning disabled, to provide essential feedback for the intercultural growth of the collective as an inclusive, curated international art platform. Central to Art et al.’s work is commissioning and presenting collaborations between artists from supported studios, artist peers and arts professionals—wherever they live.
In 2021, Arts Project worked with the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and other Melbourne-based galleries and studios to realise the kinds of expansive arts models that are demonstrating capacity to support a broad spectrum of practices, people, and perspectives. These initiatives signal a change in long-held contemporary art conventions, moving toward models that embrace creatives traditionally marginalised and siloed. However, the transformation needed is found in prolonged and often exhausted discourse, such as margin vs centre and outside vs inside; unfortunately, these debates continue to reinforce outdated barriers to participation. Deconstructing art hierarchies and labels to create a more open and inclusive contemporary art landscape is long overdue and is a vital prerequisite moving forward, rather than the exception or a tick box, if we are to claim any semblance of equity in the arts.
Western art canons have typically misunderstood, othered and overlooked neurodivergent (as well as intellectually and learning-disabled) people. In Australia, as recently as the 1970s, many people with intellectual disabilities lived in state-based institutions or close-knit families. Their artwork, often created with poor materials, was seldom viewed by anyone outside an artist’s family and caregivers, and, as a result, most art made was dismissed and discarded. However, grassroots movements in the ‘70s disrupted the status quo and several supported studios (sharing similar philosophies and ethical frameworks) emerged worldwide. These studios forever changed the arts landscape by providing professional, supported, and safe spaces for neurodivergent people and people with diagnosed mental health issues to create and exhibit their art. Since then, neurodivergent artists have gained visibility and built noteworthy careers within the mainstream art sector, earning such recognitions as selection in major awards from the Turner to the Archibald Prizes.
Arts Project is the country’s longest running example of these models. Founded in Melbourne in 1974 by Myra Hilgendorf OAM, Arts Project has stayed true to its vision for almost 50 years, to support artists with intellectual disabilities by promoting their work and advocating for inclusion in the contemporary art world. Myra had a daughter Joanna with an intellectual disability, and she experienced first-hand the disparity in professional opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. Myra’s response was to amass work from institutes around Victoria and mount shows in mainstream galleries that toured regionally. Initiated in those early years, the Arts Project Australia Sidney Myer Collection gained international significance and now resides in the State Library of Victoria awaiting accessioning and public access. Julian Martin, Alan Constable, Cathy Staughton and Lisa Reid are just some of the Arts Project artists whose international careers span decades, presented in studios and galleries worldwide as contemporary artists rather than outsider, marginalised or disabled artists.
As Chris McAuliffe wrote in Artlink in 1992, ‘This philosophy of empowerment through professional practice… distances Arts Project Australia from the tradition of Outsider Art. Unlike the latter, Arts Project seeks to participate in art structures rather than shun them.’ Continuing to propagate othering of artists, even by using terms like ‘outsider’, is not simply a debate about semantics. Engendering systemic change, respect and equality is a human rights issue. While organisations like Arts Project help raise the profile of neurodivergent artists, people in our community remain outside of constructed Western norms, ‘within the art world and often within Australian society’. Parity in the arts—as anywhere—is about removing labels and barriers that impact a person’s wellbeing and or limit their access to opportunities afforded their non-disabled peers. To achieve this goal, strong and empathetic cultural leadership is required.
Creative State 2025 is the Victorian Government’s four-year creative industries strategy, with a promise to deliver on ‘Victoria’s reputation as a global cultural destination and bold creative leader.’ The announcement identifies 25 actions across five strategic priorities, including equitable access to the creative industries, with economic prosperity and social wellbeing key drivers. Yet, for aspiring artists, the arts aren’t an equal playing field. There are creatives in our community who require more help than their peers to overcome access barriers and navigate complex art landscapes. Supported studios such as Arts Project and platforms such as Art et al. are two best practice models but adopting fully inclusive methodologies comes with a cost. It requires additional resourcing to provide artists with various access and communication support, safe cultural environments and individual needs. Without adequate investment, what is advantageously put to paper by government will never be fully realised. This is despite the best intentions and efforts of progressive arts organisations striving for parity through inclusive programming, as well as innovative cultural collaborations and partnerships.
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s (ACCA) Who’s Afraid of Public Space was one such opportunity. This 2021–22 project explored the role of public culture, the contested nature of public space, the character and composition of public life and contemporary art’s relation to broader social, cultural, and political contexts. In doing so, they collaborated with Arts Project, Blak Dot, Bus Projects, and Footscray Community Arts Centre, among others, to involve artists working within supportive arts organisations. Within the programme, Arts Project and Mikaela Stafford curated To the Street, a series of collaborative projects between neurodivergent and neurotypical artists in the Collingwood Yards community. The process involved asking artists to consider ideas of connectivity, visibility, and access as cornerstones of activating inclusive public spaces. Two works emerged that presented visual representations of what public spaces can be like for a person living with an invisible disability. Natalie Jurrjens and Eden Menta (of Arts Project) photographic work Ways of Seeing explored how public spaces can feel frightening and unsafe for someone with a disability. It was created during lockdown and post-lockdown, where the artists went on an emotionally charged journey of discovery about public spaces, their values and each other. Eden, who identifies as an artist with an invisible ‘diffability’, said ‘Everyone should be and feel included no matter who they are.’ Natalie reflected that ‘I have learned a lot through working on this project. It’s taught me to be patient, to listen and think more about the experience and perspective of others.’
As is now well documented, the pandemic has had a ‘devastating impact on the local and global creative sector.’ Yet, despite these momentous challenges new opportunities emerged, such as Art et al., which seized digital opportunities to break down barriers in the arts on an international scale. As well as placing neurodivergent, intellectually, and learning-disabled artists front and centre, Art et al. works with UK and Australian artists to connect with other studios, curators, collectors, and writers. Art et al. is committed to paying NAVA standard fees as a minimum, and had start-up funding for this objective from the Australian Government through the Australia Council of the Arts, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the British Council, and the Aesop Foundation.
In the past eighteen months, Art et al. have worked with over 30 arts professionals (artists, writers, curators, directors and collecting institutions) as well as studios including Studio A (Sydney), ArtGusto (Geelong), ActionSpace and Submit to Love Studios in London. Throughout 2022 they will work with artists and organisations in Indonesia and Switzerland, with plans to greater extend their reach if they can secure adequate project funding. For Art et al. individual choice, creativity, and representation is key. With this approach they set the bar for an open, diverse, and inclusive contemporary art world. It is not a radical act to encourage neurodivergent artists to create work as they envision it, or to enable artists to identify how they want to represent themselves: as an artist/ disabled artist/ artist with a disability/ neurodivergent artist/ or otherwise.
In 2021, Art et al. partnered Georgia Szmerling from Arts Project with British artist Holly Stevenson in a peer-to-peer collaboration. The artists were selected for their shared interest in flora and fauna. Over eight weeks, they shared sketches, objects, and videos of their local environment and studios, discovering they had a lot in common. Neither Holly nor Georgia had worked on an international ceramics collaboration, so it was a new experience. Challenges across international time-zones made it difficult for the artists to connect by phone or Zoom, so they sent packages and videos to share something of their environment, to connect and inspire each other and push their work in new directions. The project resulted in two new collections of ceramic sculptures, first presented online and then exhibited in Season One at Cromwell Place, London, in March 2022 and Arts Project in Collingwood in September 2022. Georgia reflected that ‘It’s a good experience to try something new and work with someone else. Take the opportunity when you get the chance and meet new people. Let other artists and people overseas know who you are.’
Another example of an Art et al. collaboration was Matt Robertson from ArtGusto (Geelong) who met over zoom with John Powell-Jones in Manchester. Both artists are fascinated with character creation and storytelling. Armed with a mutual desire to share real-life emotions and events, an international exchange of storytelling and storyboarding began. The collaboration introduced audiences to two characters, Thought and Flaze, created by Matt and another fictional character, Atamur, designed by John. ‘Across two separate storylines, audiences got an insight into the minds of these incredible illustrators who tell stories of trust and overcoming anxiety. Thought and Flaze are two homeless characters who take Atamur on a trip to places they like to spend time, including the beach, a golf course, and a fireworks display. Atamur has a suit he wears that he calls ‘Amur’, a nervous system that he has built to protect himself from everything the world throws at him. Over time the suit softens and sometimes comes off when he feels comfortable with those around him’, explained Jennifer Gilbert of Art et al. ‘During our time together [online], we developed a collaborative story in which existing characters crossed over into each other’s worlds. Each week as Matt and I got to know each other better, so did the characters. Each week we would individually draw our characters and the environments they inhabited and ask questions. These separate elements were then digitally compiled to make comic book/storyboard pages’, John observed. For Matt, ‘It was a way to show off my world and different sceneries and seasons. A way to introduce new friends into the world of my characters, and to introduce my work to people who don’t know me or haven’t seen my work before.’
The outcomes from these peer-to-peer collaborations take whatever form the artists desire, and the Art et al. curators facilitate online meetings and agreements outlining project parameters and expectations. The framework is informed by Art et al.’s values: to be relevant, inclusive, respectful, accessible, and innovative. The goal is to remove barriers between neurodivergent artists, professionals, and creatives while providing the support to create safe spaces to work online and IRL. By connecting artists, studios, and arts professionals, Art et al. demonstrates positive working modes while raising the profile of neurodivergent artists internationally. As artist and writer on autism and art Sonia Boué puts it, ‘When working collectively across neurological types, we can open a dialogue and challenge hidden assumptions. Collaborating allows us to consider what any artist might need to support their practice, and how can we level up when we need something different from the currently assumed norm, because we’re all dependent on support, but this is rarely acknowledged in the arts’.
- ^ Sonia Boué, “Autistic Arts Professionalism”, 11 March 2017, https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/autism-r-us/; accessed 31 May 2022__
- ^ Chris McAuliffe, “Arts Project Australia, Creativity, Marginality and the Politics of Difference”, Artlink vol.12 no.4, (1992–1993): 24–26__
- ^ Charles Green, Grace McQuilten, Anna Parlane and Anthony White, “Recentring Australian Art”, https://recentringaustralianart.org/, accessed 3 June 2022__
- ^ Creative State, launched by Minister for Creative Industries, The Hon Danny Pearson MP July 2021, https://creative.vic.gov.au/major-initiatives/creative-state/2025; accessed 25 May 2022__
- ^ Curated by Max Delany, Annika Kristensen and Miriam Kelly, 4 December 2021–20 March 2022); see also Tara Heffernan’s essay Vast spaces/Uneven terrain: Interpreting the politics of space from a place of impairment in this issue, 14–21__
- ^ Arts Project Australia, “To the Street” as part of ACCA’s project “Who’s Afraid of Public Space?”, https://tothestreet.org/; accessed 10 June 2022__
- ^ Eden Menta & Natalie Jurrjens, “Ways of Seeing”, Commissioned by Arts Project Australia for “To the Street” as part of ACCA’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Public Space?’, https://tothestreet.org/eden-menta-x-natalie-jurrjens, accessed 16 June 2022__
- ^ Creative Victoria, “Consultation Outcomes Report”, Creative State 2021–2025, https://creative.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/574591/Creative_State_2021-2025_-_Consultation_Outcomes_Report.pdf; accessed 25 May 2022__
- ^ Art et al., “Our Purpose”, https://artetal.org/about; accessed 27 May 2022__
- ^ Australian artists Alasdair McLuckie, Georgia Szmerling, Emily Ferretti, and Thom Roberts, and UK artists Holly Stevenson, John Powell-Jones, Cherelle Sappleton and Billy Mann as well as writers Katrina Schwartz, Tiarney Miekus, Kelly Gellatly, Sonia Boué, Mike Pinnington, and Jennifer Higgie__
- ^ Art et al., “Artist Collaboration / 04: Peer/Peer Georgia Szmerling X Holly Stevenson”, https://artetal.org/peer-to-peer/collab-05, accessed 10 June 2022__
- ^ Art et al., “Artist Collaboration / 04: Peer/Peer Matt Robertson X John Powell-Jones”, https://artetal.org/peer-to-peer/collab-04; accessed 10 June 2022__
- ^ Sonia Boué, “Autistic Arts Professionalism”; Sonia is an artist and writer on autism and art, a leading consultant for #neurodiversity in the arts, and an Art et al. steering group member and regular contributor.
Sim Luttin is a Melbourne-based arts leader, curator and gallery manager at Arts Project Australia and co-founder of Art et al.