Arts Project Australia: Creativity, marginality and the politics of difference

Studio. Courtesy Arts Project Australia
Studio. Courtesy Arts Project Australia

Arts Project Australia was formed in Melbourne in 1974 as an advocacy group for artists with an intellectual disability. The initial aim of the organisation was to gather a comprehensive collection of artworks from centres in Victoria working with people with an intellectual disability. It was thought that collecting and exhibiting such work would demonstrate to the art community and the general public that people with an intellectual disability were capable of artistic expression and had a right to recognition as competent professional artists.

This strategy was rooted in specific beliefs regarding the nature of art and in contemporary social developments. Creativity was understood as involving some level of conscious practice, a sign of deliberate and individual expression rather than a random or fortuitous act. The beliefs that people with intellectual disabilities were incapable of formal expression, unable to develop a sophisticated use of language, and unlikely to find a place in society outside of institutions were to be contested by presenting their images as legitimate artworks. This attitude drew on the tradition of Outsider Art, with its emphasis on the power and authenticity of non-mainstream imagery, and on the development in the 1970s of criticism of established structures for the care and education of people with an intellectual disability. Art was seen as something more than therapy, it was a means of transcending institutional structures and social marginalisation.

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. In this sense, Arts Project positions artists with an intellectual disability as marginal artists rather than complete Outsiders. Their difference is acknowledged but it is articulated within mainstream structures so as not to perpetuate the exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. Arts Project has often had to negotiate a difficult balance between inside and outside, margin and centre, romanticism and the hard realities of the art business. In spite of this, a strong belief in the liberative qualities of art is maintained, perhaps best embodied in the assertion by Myra Hilgendorf, President of Arts Project, that “Where there is artistic excellence, there is dignity.”

Artworks by John Northe. Courtesy Arts Project Australia
Artworks by John Northe. Courtesy Arts Project Australia

In 1984, after devoting several years to staging exhibitions of works produced within institutional contexts, Arts Project Australia established its own studio–workshop where artists with an intellectual disability could develop their practice in conjunction with practising contemporary artists. From the outset, activities were founded on the belief that the project should have direct and tangible benefits for people with an intellectual disability, that it should not be a glamorous structure set up simply to salve social conscience or make patronising gestures towards “integration”. The Arts Project Australia Studio Workshop Program takes an educative rather than therapeutic approach. People with an intellectual disability are not regarded as “ill” in the sense that the notion of therapy presupposes, even though there may indeed be therapeutic benefits from artistic involvement.

The educative approach taken at Arts Project Australia is based much more directly on viewing artistic involvement as an issue of access and equity, and in providing a viable and socially valuable alternative to existing art programs and institutions. Of particular concern is the development of skills and perceptions within the individual participant which will enable them to explore and develop their fullest artistic potential. It is also hoped that the individual participant will develop some degree of self-criticism of their work in order to improve their capacity for true expresion based on choice. It is not sufficient for any mark on paper to be interpreted as truly expressive or communicative, as sometimes this only reflects a very restricted range of available options. The Studio Workshop program is concerned with developing people’s perceptions and, as much as possible, developing their skills so that they are able to choose from a much wider range of possibilities.

Bill Griffiths, Shrine. Courtesy Arts Project Australia
Bill Griffiths, Shrine. Courtesy Arts Project Australia

Within this practice Arts Project Australia must frequently address complex issues. The relationship between the artsworker and the student must be negotiated carefully. Many people with an intellectual disability are extremely vulnerable to suggestion and lack sufficient confidence to assert their own ideas and preferences. It would be easy for someone in the role of artsworker to unwittingly direct the work to their own ends or to their own aesthetic satisfaction. The question of intervention is an extremely complex one as it involves not only issues related to a work’s content and means of execution, but also to issues such as deciding when a work is “finished”.

The underlying principle in the Studio Workshop is always to respect the personal space of the artist/participant and to make suggestions in keeping with the participant’s perceived intentions without being overly directive. Obviously this is a very delicate and difficult balance to achieve, and there are times when participants may require specific guidance in order to gain a new skill or reach a new level of understanding. But, in general, the role of the artsworker is to set up the conditions whereby the participant is able to develop the quality of their creative experience by being provided with access to a range of materials and techniques to enhance the quality of their work and allow them to develop their own artistic style.

Likewise, the process of exhibiting must be carefully thought through. Arts Project Australia has shown in over one hundred exhibitions, both in Australia and overseas. This formed the basis of the early activities of the organisation and has continued to be a major focus of the studio–workshop program. In the 1970s these exhibitions helped to assist the wider community to make a first, tentative step towards recognising that people with an intellectual disability have the potential to participate actively and positively in society. In more recent years, exhibitions have been used to affirm that art is a viable career for a person with an intellectual disability.

Now, in keeping with the growing consciousness of the impact that structures of display and consumption have on the conception of artwork, the position of Arts Project Australia – straddling a vague boundary between margin and centre – must be re-examined. In particular, the possibility that the particular qualities of identity and the experience of artists with an intellectual disability may be erased by their more generalised status as artists must be addressed.

Artworks by Julian Martin. Courtesy Arts Project Australia
Artworks by Julian Martin. Courtesy Arts Project Australia

When Arts Project Australia staged a survey exhibition entitled Inside Out/Outside In in the Access Gallery of the National Gallery of Victoria in August 1992 every effort was made to accord the show the same status as any other in such an institution. All the trappings of a mainstream museum display were included: a wide range of artworks, extensive signage, a substantial colour catalogue, volunteer guides were briefed on the exhibition and a public forum featuring local and international experts was held.

The exhibition attracted a large and enthusiastic audience and was, by all reports, a resounding success. Yet it became clear (particularly at the public forum) that the show tended to raise rather than answer questions. Speaking at the forum, Professor Roger Cardinal of the Univesity of Kent proposed a distinction between Outsider Art (which would have no truck with the mainstream) and marginal art (which, in participating in the in the mainstream, surrendered some of its authenticity and independence). In this sense, the legitimisation of Arts Project Australia in the museum exhibition radically changed perceptions of the artists and their works.  

As Roger Trowbridge of RMIT pointed out at the same forum, the social and political challenge posed by marginal groups would dissipate if the artworks were located purely according to mainstream criteria. In seeking access to the centre, marginal artists might lose sight of the very source of their identity and power – their difference. Arts Project Australia thus finds itself in an unenviable position: the success of the exhibition and the legitimacy it conferred on the artists clearly empowered them, but their unique cultural identity might fade in the process.

Out of this experience came the realisation that a new set of strategies must be developed. Clearly, there is a general feeling that the mainstream art world has hijacked creativity by monopolising its definition and articulation. Entering the mainstream was a powerful tactical move but the mainstream still calls the shots. It is apparent, after many years of activity, that it is not just the structures of the art system that need to be challenged, but also its discourses. The issue is not simply one of passage from outside to inside, of admitting previously excluded artists. The very concepts used to frame artistic practice – creativity, expression, originality, authenticity, aesthetic quality etc. – need to be redefined from the margins rather than from the centre.

Shirley Warke, Not titled, crayon on paper. Courtesy Arts Project Australia
Shirley Warke, Not titled, crayon on paper. Courtesy Arts Project Australia

Now that the politics of difference has become a prominent concern within the visual arts, Arts Project Australia can draw upon a growing body of tactical and theoretical work in order to find a way out of this bind. Arts Project Australia had already inverted the exclusionary tactics of the mainstream; whereas the difference of artists with an intellectual disability had previously been used to exclude them, it was not a source of legitimacy. But while the difference of the artists has never been denied, it must not be privileged either. If too much is made of difference then the mainstream can reposition (and reappropriate) the artists as Outsiders or “very special” artists.

Arts Project Australia now needs to develop strategies which will play the inside and outside off against each other in such a way that the rigidity of structures and discourses alike is shaken. It is not only the place and mode of display that must be examined, but also the ways in which the works are discussed and positioned within models of creativity, expression and cultural practice. It is precisely in forcing us to question existing models of value and expression that artists with intellectual disabilities can do more than carve out a small niche in the mainstream – they can force the re-evaluation of the very paradigms upon which mainstream conceptions of art are based. Artists with an intellectual disability can challenge conventional models of cultural practice, rather than reaffirming some of the mainstream's more romantic versions of creativity.

Myra and Johanna Hilgendorf. Courtesy Arts Project Australia
Myra and Johanna Hilgendorf. Courtesy Arts Project Australia

 

Sections of this essay are based on articles by Myra Hilgendorf (President, Arts Project Australia) and Cheryl Daye (Director, Arts Project Australia) which appeared in the catalogue Inside Out/Outside In: Arts Project Australia. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the policy of Arts Project Australia itself.

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