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Is There Space for Disabled Artists at Art Fairs?

When an attendee in a wheelchair was unable to enter a Paris fair, it raised questions about the inclusion of and sensitivity to the artists, patrons, and attendees making and engaging with Outsider Art.

A makeshift ramp to bring a wheelchair user into the 2017 Paris Outsider Art Fair (image courtesy Jill Vyn); Image Description: Three men and one woman help a man in an electronic wheelchair up a temporary wood ramp

Please click below for an audio version of this piece.

All Outsider Art fairs have the potential to involve Disabled artists, perhaps more so than any other mainstream contemporary fair. Nonetheless, the prospects for full participation by or consideration of Disabled audience members, patrons, or buyers seem bleak.

As a Disability-led arts and culture organization based in the US, we at DisArt expected more during our visit to the 2017 Paris Outsider Art Fair. Like any other arts event we attend, we were there to explore and interact with dealers and artists from around the world. Instead, we spent our first hours at the fair trying to access the historical venue situated in Paris’s 9th Arrondissement. While the staff and volunteers from Wide Open Arts made efforts to help, it soon became apparent that there was no space or access for an electric wheelchair in the second- and third-floor galleries. And while we were discouraged by this experience, it led us to contemplate the overall appreciation and marketing of Disabled art within the greater contemporary art world.

Disabled artists have been a mainstay of Outsider Art since Dubuffet “discovered” the art of marginal or mentally ill individuals. What he labeled Art Brut in the late 1940s has been translated by the contemporary art world as “outsider art” to describe and sell art that is raw or untrained.

Creative Growth Disabled Artist Judith Scott, JS 47 (image courtesy Jill Vyn, 2017); Image Description: Oval-shaped object consisting of colorful interwoven yarn on a pedestal; two men, partially framed, discuss the work in the background

This designation has, ironically, kept Disabled artists outside galleries and cultures of contemporary art. The Outsider Art world seems to have little room for the physical presence of the “outsider”— even though the art itself reveals much about the individualized experience of disability.

The experience of not gaining entrance to the Paris Outsider Art Fair has given rise to a number of questions for DisArt: Does the physical presence of a Disabled audience or artist at an outsider art fair enhance or detract from the apparent value of the work itself? And why isn’t the generally liberal-leaning art world spending energy to increase the participation of a significant marginalized Disabled culture especially at a fair that depends on said culture’s existence?

It is important to note that, when we attend other art fairs and art exhibitions, we consider the multiple ways that people are either able to engage with the art or are prevented from doing so. What we have found, in general, is that while most fairs and galleries are physically accessible they are not necessarily equipped to encourage engagement through such things as audio description, captioning, large font on wall texts, hanging height, respite spaces, etc. At Paris, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that there is nothing comparable to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in Europe, which means that there is no guideline or mandate for the fair to ensure accessibility. (Although it is also important to note that even ADA compliance is no guarantee of accessibility.)

In addition to these very real logistical implications, our concern is that the infrastructure of Outsider Art depends too heavily upon experiential distance, and the consequent mystery of the artists’ narrative — so much so that the physical presence of Disabled people, as critics or consumers, has the potential to diminish the outsider quality of the art itself. Pushing further, is there a fear that an authentic Disabled voice will disrupt an otherwise smooth system that currently benefits from the absence of the physical presence of disability?

Steps at the entrance of the 2017 Paris Outsider Art Fair (image courtesy Jill Vyn); Image Description: Large sign in the background announces the entrance to the 2017 Paris Outsider Art Fair with an arrow; man in wheelchair faces stairs

DisArt offers Wide Open Arts and other fair producers an alternative imagination of the art world, one that provides and depends upon the full participation of its artists, potential buyers and critics.

In the end, DisArt’s experience of the fair became its own “outsider art” performance, on the streets of Paris where a crowd was gathering. Passing on the idea of using a wheelchair that would not provide adequate support for our team member, we settled on using found materials to create a makeshift ramp that would get him in the door. But that was as far as he could go, for even though the stairs were traversed, the elevator to the gallery was, in the end, too small. And while we experimented with bringing video down to our team member who uses the chair, we eventually split up: our curator continued into the fair to represent our interests and discover new artists while we sat down to write this article.

DisArt is an arts and culture organization that promotes full cultural participation of the Disabled community through strategic partnerships, carefully curated public events, and consultation. DisArt programming amplifies the voice, visibility, and value of all Disabled people. DisArt uses cutting-edge disability arts exhibitions and performances, digital experiences, symposiums, organizational consulting, and public workshops as the means to engage a variety of audiences in dialogues about the lived experience of disability.

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