Neurodiverse and disabled artists join mainstream, but discrimination persists

Project Art Works, a collective of neurodiverse artists and activists, has been nominated for the Turner Prize
© Works of art project

The pandemic year has brought issues of access and the rights of people with disabilities back to life, and the art world is paying attention. Recent signs of this shift in consciousness include a collective of neurodiverse artists and activists, Project Art Works, nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize. In addition, two works by self-taught artist Helen Rae have entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, building on the continued growth of institutional interest in “outside” artists. ; Last October, the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced a Disability Futures scholarship. And, a new online platform, Art et Al, provides resources to help institutions, galleries and other places become more accessible to neurodiverse and disabled artists.

“There is a change – and it’s sad and it says a lot about human beings that it has taken so long – but there is a change,” says Paige Wery, director of the Tierra del Sol gallery in Los Angeles, which sells works by neurodiverse and disabled artists.

Advocates and dealers in this area warn, however, that as the recognition and awards of these artists increase, there are still many barriers to entry for “outside” artists into the market, and the risk of exploitation remains. raised.

June 16, 2017 is one of two works by disabled artist Helen Rae, who passed away earlier this year, now in the collection of MoMA
Courtesy of Galerie Tierra del Sol

Jennifer Gilbert, who runs the Jennifer Lauren Gallery in Manchester, representing self-taught, neurodiverse and disabled artists, has also seen progress over the past year but notes that issues persist on the ground. The Turner Prize nomination for Project Art Works is “such massive recognition,” she says. In general, she has found the art establishment more open to working with her to diversify their agendas in recent months. But for many of these artists, she says, opportunities in the art world such as open calls and public art commissions are always out of reach.

“These artists would often not be able to fulfill the [application] learn or even know that these opportunities exist, ”says Gilbert. “A lot of times it’s up to the studios to submit things on their behalf.” The fees associated with open appeal requests can also be unaffordable for artists living on disability benefits, she adds. “They can’t afford the £ 35 fee to submit the job. The form and the costs are a huge obstacle.

Creativity Explored, a San Francisco studio that works with artists with disabilities, recognizes the same issue with its artists who lack access to public art commissions and corporate-funded opportunities. He attributes this in part to the fact that communicating with artists with disabilities takes more work. The studio is currently consulting with businesses, hotels, and tech companies like Twitter and Facebook to advocate for such opportunities.

Artists who do not speak or have other developmental disabilities are also vulnerable to exploitation in a capitalist market. “When I do exhibitions, it’s always inside me: will I be treated fairly? ”Says Thompson Hall, an artist from the London studio supported by ActionSpace. Hall also notes that galleries generally favor artists from well-known art schools and that when he gets exhibits, “it may be under an outside label, which I don’t want to be placed”.

Consent issues are crucial but difficult, say lawyers and dealers in the field. If a neurodivergent or disabled artist is unable to offer clear consent for their work to be sold and exhibited in a way that suits them, family members or studios working closely with the artists should be asked to give their consent.

Shameful exploitation

“The art world is so complex that it’s very easy to take advantage of someone who hasn’t been trained in the art world,” says Wery. Wery ran the Good Luck Gallery, a commercial enterprise that sold works by so-called “outside” artists for five years before closing the space and more recently starting work for Tierra del Sol. While running Good Luck, some older and established merchants advised her to buy cheap supplies of self-taught artists’ work and then multiply the prices by several – an idea she found shocking.

“It’s been happening for a long time,” says Wery. “I hope the artists are better protected than in the past, but there are snakes in the grass.”

As the public and art collectors become more aware of the issues in the art – and their own biases – dealers say some collectors still expect to pay bargain prices for the work of these artists. Sonia Dutton, a New York merchant who participates in the Outsider Art Fair, notes the well-known role model of a small number of old-guard foreign artists such as Henry Darger and Bill Traylor receiving exorbitant prices, alongside ‘”a chasm of middle ground, then a roaring demand from little-known or unknown artists where prices are expected to be in line with drawings blown up in flat files, found objects and l ephemeral or anonymous folk art.

Therefore, says Dutton, “the baseline in the self-taught arena tends to be much lower. And when I have upped the prices and explained why, I get a reluctance. ”

Like Dutton, Gilbert feels a moral obligation to value works in a way that reflects those of a comparable aesthetic in the general market, and also reflects the work of the artist. “A part of [the artists] have spent months on a job and that deserves to be reflected in the price, ”Gilbert said.

While commercial galleries try to match the value of these works with similar works by artists with MFAs, works by artists with disabilities unknown to the market often cost less than $ 100 per piece in non-profit studios. lucrative. Cléa Massiani, curator at Creativity Explored, explains that this is in part due to a more democratic approach to the art world. At Creativity Explored, they love allowing young people and low-income people to buy art.

At the same time, they closely monitor the markets of individual artists and increase prices according to demand. “Now that artists have a certain status – around the world – we have to make sure it’s something they have access to,” Massiani said.

At Creative Growth, another Bay Area studio, some of the artist’s prices have reached five-figure sums, and several have entered museum collections.

For neurodiverse and disabled artists, however, success can come at a price. Government regulations in the US and UK mean that people who earn more than a certain amount can lose their benefits. This is a particularly acute problem in the UK, where in some cases earning just over £ 100 a month from the sale of works of art can affect their benefit payment. Gilbert is currently studying possible legislative changes to relax these rules.

In California, where the rules are a bit more generous, Wery says there is still plenty of room for growth, both in the laws that regulate the earnings of artists with disabilities and the stigma that reduces the value of artist’s work. these artists.

“I think the prices have to be put in the place of people in the contemporary art market,” says Wery. “These are contemporary artists who do incredible work – the prices should reflect that.”

About Margaret L. Portillo

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