How one art gallery is changing the conversation around artists with disabilities.
The art world is experiencing a reckoning when it comes to inclusion. The past few years have seen it (countless other fields) reexamine whose work and stories it has prioritized at the expense of others. Much of this conversation has rightfully centered around women and people of color, but one group has been largely left out despite its significant contributions: people with disabilities. Oakland-based art center and gallery, Creative Growth, has worked to change this for decades. Gallery Director Sarah Galender Meyer spoke with Platform about the reasons artists with disabilities are often unable to adequately profit from the sale of their work, the importance of assessing the work of artists with disabilities using the same critical eye and broadening common definitions of success.
What are the origins and mission of Creative Growth?
Creative Growth was founded in 1974 by a couple, Florence and Elias Katz. She was an artist and he was a psychologist. It was a very groovy time - the disability movement was really taking off and the art world was very experimental in all disciplines. Around the same time, services for adults with disabilities were cut from the budget in California thanks to Ronald Reagan, and the Katz's just opened up their garage to a few artists who had developmental disabilities and started this workspace. They always had the intention of establishing a gallery as well because, in addition to the belief that the tools for creative expression should be available to everyone, they thought artistic excellence could be achieved by people who are untrained. The gallery would then act as a space for artists with disabilities to engage with other artists and the public. Very quickly, they secured NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] grants because that was also a great time for arts funding, and they bought the building in downtown Oakland in 1980. It is a huge space that has been renovated a few times and now serves over 140 artists.
How do you feel the national conversation has changed over the years regarding artists who have disabilities?
I think it’s grown in tandem with disability advocacy, and also with outsider and self-taught art being more widely accepted into the contemporary art world. The perception and reception of artists with disabilities is changing for the better.
You mentioned Reagan-era cuts in funding being a factor in Creative Growth’s origins. What's the current climate for funding like?
Right now, SSI [Supplemental Security Income] benefits are under review, which limits the amount of income people can receive, who also receive benefits from the State. The problem is that the limit hasn't changed in decades and it's keeping people with disabilities below the poverty line because they could lose their benefits if they earn more than $300 or $500 a month. This directly affects our artists because as they become more successful and artwork sales increase, they aren’t allowed to fully enjoy that financial success. Our artists are not able to participate in society as contemporary artists, which is a shame. Those resources could be used to hire assistants, secure private studio space and other opportunities that Creative Growth can’t currently provide.
What's the application process like for artists who want to join Creative Growth?
There is no application process. There isn’t an art test or portfolio presentation. That's what I love about it – so much genius and creativity is coming from people who may have never tried making art before. We provide high-quality materials and support to develop their own practice, and there’s no pressure or expectation. No one gets kicked out of the program for not creating or producing a certain caliber of work. For example, we have somebody who's been drawing Chuck E. Cheese for 13 years, and that's totally fine.
One of Creative Growth’s most famous artists, Judith Scott, sat for two years not doing much because she hadn't found her outlet yet. It wasn't until a visiting artist arrived who worked in textiles that something clicked for Judith and she created an incredible body of work that is exhibited internationally and in some of the most celebrated public collections. So that's the way it is at Creative Growth, and it’s been working just fine.
How does Creative Growth work to meet all the individual needs that I'm sure come through the door in such an open setting?
We have really great staff artists. All of the people who are working in the studio are artists themselves. It's organized by morning sessions and afternoon sessions, and the areas are roughly designated by medium. There's a wood shop, there's a ceramics area with its own kilns, there's painting and drawing, digital media, and then everything in between. There were 80 to 90 artists in the building on any given day pre-Covid, which is quite large, but there’s a support structure of staff and volunteers.
What have the effects of the pandemic been on the gallery and the artists who come through?
The studio started online programming for the artists when we closed, primarily as a way to stay connected. Much of the studio experience is about community, so there was a real effort to keep that going. We are slowly reopening, and it’s been so great to have the artists back in the building. They are excited to be back, and it finally feels like life has returned to the organization. Right now, I have artists working in the gallery instead of a show that’s open to the public, not just for safety, but because there are a lot of exhibition opportunities with other galleries coming up. We are very lucky in this way.
Are there any persistent misconceptions you’ve found that people have about the gallery or the artists who work there?
Absolutely. There’s certainly the perception among some people that Creative Growth is a recreation center, and the artwork isn’t always taken seriously. This relates to general attitudes about people with disabilities, and it negatively impacts the work we do to promote our artists in the contemporary art world. Even with Dan Miller, another very successful Creative Growth artist with artwork in multiple prominent collections including the Pompidou and MoMA, people have asked, "Why are his prices so high? It's a person with a disability.” And on top of that, his artwork is still priced on the low end for a contemporary artist of that caliber.
When we go a little deeper, there's also a perception that the artists don't have a thoughtful creative process because they have developmental disabilities. And that's not true. Just by observing, you can see that each artist has developed systems, honed impulses, and devised techniques just as other contemporary artists have. The issue is that we don’t always know what they are because they either haven’t been taught the language to articulate it, or they aren’t verbal. I think people could learn a lot from watching and trying to understand how our artists work.
It's interesting you mention process. I was curious about that too. Obviously, some artists are nonverbal, and so it might be a little bit more difficult to understand what that process is, but have you been able to communicate with any of the artists directly about what their process is like?
Yes, there are many artists who are very happy to discuss their process and their work. However, it just so happens that the artists who will be on Platform are both nonverbal [Ron Veasey and Ying Ge Zhou]. What is so interesting is that I find both of their aesthetics so nuanced and compelling, but unfortunately, no one will ever really know what their process is or why they make certain choices. We can’t have those conversations, but we are left with their beautiful artwork, and that mystery is also OK.
What do you think the artists at Creative Growth offer the art world that perhaps isn't found elsewhere?
I think that if the art world let go of its traditional academic and value-driven lens when it comes to process and outcome, there would be a lot to learn about creativity. I’m obviously biased, but I think that the artwork coming out of Creative Growth is some of the most exciting and engaging contemporary art.
You work with many different artists. I don't want to paint everyone with one brush, but what do you think would surprise people the most about the artists who work with Creative Growth?
One thing that I really enjoy is the lack of inhibition many of our artists have when it comes to making art. I’ve worked with a lot of artists who don’t have disabilities and the consternation, the ego, and the fear around their artwork can really hold them back. It’s so refreshing and exciting to be around Creative Growth artists because they seem to experience a lot more freedom in their practice.
How do you think the larger art world could be more actively welcoming to these artists?
That's such a complicated question. At base, it’s letting go of the idea that the credentials of learning and responding to art history is needed in order to be a successful artist.
Do you feel that progress is being made in the art world to be more inclusive?
I do. A large part of my job is proving the legitimacy of our artists' work in multiple contexts, but I do feel like it's changing. And of course it’s helpful when that legitimacy is external. For example, if David Zwirner gallery thinks that an artist’s work is good, then other people will agree. Through that exposure and the ability to have interviews like this, more people will start to dive a little deeper and they can start bringing new perspectives into the world. Creative Growth is part of an important dialogue. And as time goes on, more galleries, museums, curators, and collectors become increasingly interested and respectful. But we haven't reached the apex yet.
I feel people are afraid to have conversations or ask certain questions when it comes to issues surrounding disability. Is there anything that you really wish people would either ask you or your artists?
I wish people weren’t afraid of engaging with our artists and their artwork at all. I think people can ask the same questions as they would any other contemporary artist, and look at their work with the same critical eye, but I’d like to see more comfort and curiosity when answers defy expectations.