What are the implications of disabled people's civil rights and social justice struggles for curators, archivists, art historians and others? In this essay, I challenge the curatorial practices surrounding a recent Berkeley Art Museum exhibit that has led to much debate among local disability culture artists and artists with disabilities. This review essay emerges from community. It is informed by discussions with Katherine Sherwood, Neil Marcus, Sunny Taylor, Sandie Yi, Scott Wallin and others, stakeholders in the disability arts community in Berkeley. Marking this embedment points to the core critical issue I have with the Berkeley show. The show's written materials are mono-vocal, and no disabled artists, activists or academics were involved in the curation or the textual productions surrounding the exhibit. This is a politics and an approach that is out of step with social justice movements of the 21st century, and needs to be called out.
In 2011, the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) presented an exhibit called Create. It is a survey of work by three local disability-focused community arts centers: Creative Growth, the National Institute for Arts and Disability (NAID), and Creativity Explored. All three emerged from the 1970s pioneering work of artist Florence Ludins-Katz and psychologist Elias Katz, who created these centers as part of a socially- and expression-focused treatment plan for adults with disabilities. The exhibit was curated by Lawrence Rinder, with Matthew Higgs, director of White Columns, NYC (who does not speak in the publicity materials or write in the exhibit catalogue, so I refer only to Rinder in this essay). The featured artists were Mary Belknap, Jeremy Burleson, Attilio Crescenti, Daniel Green, Willie Harris, Carl Hendrickson, Michael Bernard Loggins, Dwight Mackintosh, John Patrick McKenzie, James Miles, Dan Miller, James Montgomery, Marlon Mullen, Bertha Otoya, Aurie Ramirez, Evelyn Reyes, Lance Rivers, Judith Scott, William Scott, and William Tyler, many of whom are famous beyond the Bay Area, and highly collectable artists. In this review essay, I do not write about their art: my argument has rather to do with the framing of the show.
BAM, one of the flagship contemporary art museums in the Bay Area, has created an exhibition collecting disabled artists from nearly forty years. This should be a wonderful thing, a rich and intriguing enterprise, given the Bay Area's leadership in disability arts, culture and political expression. The BAM curator, Larry Rinder, comes with excellent social justice credentials, having created sophisticated and nuanced work in AIDS/HIV+ art environments. He is a former Dean of the California College of the Arts, and director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. And yet, the way the BAM Create exhibit has come together shows the limits of translatability of one social justice context into another. It also shows a failure to understand how politics and arts work together in different contexts.
"Nothing about us without us" is the cornerstone of disability politics. All disabled people, but particularly people with developmental disabilities, who make up a significant amount of the work presented in Create, often have to struggle to find voice and accurate representation, to escape the heavy burden of stereotypes and medical imagery that surround them. Thus, the base charge of any contemporary exhibit surrounding disability seems to me to necessitate, in some form, the honoring of artists' discourses about their work, in whatever form artists offer this. Create does not do this, not in the exhibition catalogue, not in other publicity materials, and not even in their "artists' panel": they did organize one, but the only artists speaking on it were the teaching artists who work in the centers, who identified as non-disabled in the way they spoke about "us" and "them." Not a single one of the center's "client"/artists spoke, presented, or in any way had publicly visible ownership of their work.
What would it mean for an art institution to honor non-verbal communication, or present dense and uncertain verbal fields as part of the discourse about art, not just as part of the art? It might mean this: we wouldn't just have non-disabled people speaking about and pondering the meaning of disabled artists' work, but an expanded field of communication. This would in turn un-anchor and challenge the normate art world, with its own clear divisions about ways of coming to voice, who speaks for whom, who selects whom.
As part of this honoring of different ways of knowing, being and communicating, it also seems to me important to acknowledge disabled peoples' struggles to escape or avoid institutions and the loss of citizenship rights that go along with them. Being visible as artists/creators in public spaces like galleries: there's juice here for disabled people, too often shunted away from agency, placated, cared for, marginalized, not part of the public sphere. "Nothing about us without us": forty years on in the disability right struggle, how can curators collaborate across difference, and create political and aesthetic excitement together, in public?
The dominance of medical institutional power is a concern to many disability activists, and the founders of the studio galleries seemed relatively careful to shy away from medical labels (the Katzes themselves speak of providing spaces for "people with mental, physical and social disabilities" (1990). Not so Rinder — his essay is deeply involved in parsing medical specificity, "expert" authorized labeling, and he names "developmental disability" everywhere, on the walls of the galleries, and in the catalogue essay. He is very much concerned with dividing apart the different labels: "Today, for example, there is a clear distinction between developmental disability and mental illness: the former indicates a lifelong mental and/or physical disability with onset before the age of twenty-two while the latter indicates a medical condition with onset occurring at any age. Symptoms of mental illness can frequently be managed with a combination of medications and psychotherapy" (exhibition catalogue, p. 10). It seems very strange to find this medicalized and labeling language in an essay on disability and art, without any acknowledgment of the power that medicine holds over people easily and often institutionalized, sectioned, sterilized, imprisoned and physically invaded with medication. How many people presented in the exhibit have not at least felt the threat of these violences, in particular when combined with racialized oppression?
Larry Rinder's project is the celebration of the Katzes' work, and the centers they have created, and that is indeed a worthy cause. But this exhibit is mounted at a time when the California legislature is undermining resources for disabled people left, right and center, when the funding for such places as the three institutions celebrated here (who do enroll people as "clients" predominantly through day care funding) is dwindling and under threat. There is no mention of these realities anywhere within the walls of the Berkeley Art Museum.
Rinder's exhibit is one of many tackling the luscious, beautiful, and communicative art by disabled people — there is a reason why there is such a strong outsider artist market in the U.S. and beyond. But other contemporary exhibits, often much less well resourced, manage to find much more complexity in their curatorial work, and find a way, even in the celebration of people's creativity, to address political questions about the way the art world (and the social world) operates. For instance, Jessica Cooley's and Ann Fox's 2009 exhibit RE/FORMATIONS: Disability, Women, and Sculpture, an exhibit that also had a showing at NAID in Richmond and travelled nationally, makes a significant curatorial gesture by presenting "outsider artists" like Judith Scott together with international contemporary art stars like Rebecca Horn, who, for the purposes of this exhibit, was happy to be interpellated into the canon of disabled artists (she has been chemically injured by art materials, and her disability influences her aesthetic). Bringing these different artists in contact with one another, cross-disability and cross-art markets, creates a rich and nuanced conversation.
Exhibits at the site of the "outsider" can engage the racialized/gendered/culturally disabling factors of nationhood and normality: thus, the 2004 Vernacular Visions: International Outsider Art exhibit at the International Folk Museum in Santa Fe intervened into the dominant presentation of Martín Ramírez as an artist in a psychiatric institution by focusing on his Mexican identity, productively complicating the label "outsider" through a focus on xenophobia and racism.1
Create offers none of this richness in its framing: in the various curator talks I attended, Rinder gave mainly dead white artists as references for the various artists on display — a highly complicated move given the multi-racial, multi-cultural embedment as well as the racialized tensions surrounding the gallery spaces in Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco. Likewise, in the talks I listened to, Rinder perpetuated stereotypes of 'shut-in' artists while at the same time (rightly) celebrating the communal atmosphere of the gallery studios. One of the most well-known artists on display, Judith Scott, emerges in a strange tension, being referred to again and again as a savant who created her beautiful work out of nowhere (a vision of her that is also perpetuated in some recent disability studies work), and yet we read and hear of the fact that artists at the studios go on museum visits, and that art books lie around the space. Local disabled artists like UC Berkeley professor Katherine Sherwood, who has met Scott, have different narratives of her involvement with the community, and garnering these counter-narratives would have been a great service to the art historical evaluation of Outsider Art.
Even various peoples' accounts of hanging out in the gallery spaces would have alleviated the perpetuation of outsider artist stereotypes. In my experience, it usually takes less than ten minutes for a visitor to be drawn into discussions and intimate encounters with the artists working there — sometimes non-verbal, sometimes in words that do not mimic normate dialogue, but always exciting and offering insights into the art work in progress. By relying on a single-voiced framing device, Rinder missed many opportunities to present the creativity and communicative powers of the artists he displays, to challenge the stereotypes that surround "outsider artists."
Lastly, "nothing about us without us" also means that I have to guard against my own voice taking over: while I am a disabled artist, and I have worked in community gallery studios with fellow disabled artists, my voice is also shaped by a PhD from an art college, and by years of writing about disability arts in an academic setting.
My partner, Neil Marcus, has been an artist at Creative Growth, and has spent much time there. When we visited BAM and the exhibit opening, he seemed to look out of place to some of the audiences there. With his spastic embodiment and his speech difference, he seemed marked enough as "other" for people to come up to him and congratulate him on the art: as he was not the normate gallery goer, hence he must be the extraordinary outsider artist. Wheeling around with him, I received some of these congratulations, too. It was fun, for a while, to be the projection surface for people's ideas of what the outsider artist looks like, but the reason for these projections is hurtful. It underlies my need to review a curatorial concept that keeps these projections so undisturbed.
Neil has written to Larry Rinder. He wrote this (and he has handed this document to docents working at BAM, some of whom handed out photocopies on their tours. He has also shared this with staff members at the galleries):
dear Larry. I think of us as equals in this art project. equal stakeholders with everything to gain or lose.
lets call the project C R E A T E.
you have described this exhibit as a tribute to the work of Florence and Elias Katz and the art centers that came out of their efforts.
I cannot help but assume that your concept is fraught with all sorts of politics. the university. the donors. the subject matter. the public. the city…
You put your best thought forward to create this show despite politics and players.
Congratulations for getting this far…But…now you are facing ME and my politics. I saw the show. I saw the pr. I heard you speak and I perused the book.
Here are a few issues that remain un addressed. They are to me the whole unspoken meaning and relevance of CREATE…
You're going to get a lot of flak
For missing this. in Berkeley, of all places
Art is not devoid of politics
Art is not devoid of social change
The fear that WAS NOT mentioned
Is fear of being put away in a disabled institution
Able bodied vs. disabled embodiment, point of view
A SEEMINGLY revolutionary show
Does this show look towards the future
Provide A progressive outcome/moving forward
From the Katz's past
Challenge old way of thinking
a c c u r a t e portrayal of people
Hear/listen to the artist voice
Nothing about us without us
Acknowledge the revolution
Acknowledge the protest
Acknowledge the prisoners chains
Separate art from any medicalization
Acknowledge unpleasant histories of institutions
Create fair speech
Do away with do-goodism charity
allow invisible people to become visible real people
Could it be that these ideas are on the minds of the CREATE artists as well ?
(Neil Marcus, May 2011)
Larry Rinder did reply to Neil:
"Thanks for your email. Your ideas are intriguing and I hope that the show does fuel discussion and debate about the history and current politics around disability. My own expertise, though, is really limited to the art itself."
Here lies my charge to Larry Rinder and to other curators drawn to the seductiveness of what is called "outsider art:" art is political, art is social, art is contextual, art is relational. You are limited, indeed, just as every single voice is limited, and that is never good enough. Make use of the rich environment of disability culture and disability activism — in Berkeley, nationwide, in your own environment but also in the international community — learn with us how to create social justice contexts for art, challenge art business as usual, and allow others to come to voice, for the enrichment of us all.
- Katz, Florence and Elias Katz. Art and Disabilities: Establishing the Creative Art Center for People with Disabilities. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books, 1990.
- Kuppers, Petra. The Scar of Visibility: Medical Performances and Contemporary Art. University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
- RE/FORMATIONS: Disability, Women, and Sculpture. Curators Jessica Cooley and Ann M. Fox. Davidson College, 2009.
- Rinder, Lawrence. "Create." Introductory essay in exhibition catalogue. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
For a longer discussion of this intersectional dynamic, see Kuppers on Outsider Art, 2007.
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