The Problem with Art Programs Targeting People with Disabilities

The big idea these days is art made my people with disabilities and several public agencies and organizations are jumping on the band wagon. The headline banner for VSA (Very Special Arts – ugh) reads Creating a society where people with disabilities can learn through, participation in, and enjoy the arts. Passion Works Studio in Athens, Ohio claims to inspire and liberate the human spirit through art. Beautiful artwork, lofty rhetoric, and well funded, Passion Works now receives additional grant funding from time-warner cable and the Ohio Arts Council. Passion Works has been featured on PBS and other mainstream media. Passion Works is a division of ATCO. You have to look hard to find the connection, but ATCO is a department of the Athens County Board of Mental Retardation. The ATCO building serves as a sheltered workshop and Passion Works is the art-making division.

Now, let me be clear. I love art. I see art as a way to enlighten both the artist and the viewer, a way to illuminate social issues. But, something troubles me about the likes of Passion Works and VSA. I get the inspiration part but where is the liberation of people with disabilities and the minds of ordinary citizens in all this? Where is art that illuminates the experience of being marginalized? Where are the images, performance art, and poetry that hold out the possibility of upsetting the apple cart and ending the segregation and congregate setting so prevalent in our country. And finally, where is the wealth created by these artists?

All of this makes me wonder if organizations like Passion Works, VSA, and others are interested in any thing close to liberation or if they are responding to the hot market for outsider art. An article in US News and World Report states “The market for outsider art shows no signs of abating. As a gauge of its growth, when art fair producer Sanford Smith organized the first Outsider Art Fair in New York, in 1993, he doubted he would break even. He never lost a dime, he says, “and I made a nice profit.” This year, 33 galleries will exhibit work at the 13th annual Outsider Art Fair in trendy SoHo in Manhattan, January 27-30. Judging from past attendance, 10,000-plus visitors are expected over the four-day run.”

Now, here’s a different sort of art venture that warrants interest. Insight Arts is focused on individual and community empowerment through reflective and liberating art. Their structure and goals offer promising ways that the art and disability connection could move forward on a less oppressive, more liberating path. According to their web site, Insight Arts is a contemporary arts organization dedicated to increasing access to cultural work that supports progressive social change. They engage in community based, regional and national work. Their work is organized around three core values:

1. Access to information, education and art is a basic human right.

2. Meaningful social change is dependent on the creation of cooperative social and political structures.

3. Time for contemplation and analysis is crucial to community and individual empowerment.

This is the sort of art endeavor that offers more hope for true liberation of people with disabilities.


Filed under Art and Learning, My Art, Teaching

7 responses to “The Problem with Art Programs Targeting People with Disabilities

  1. Pingback: » Art and Social Change

  2. thanks for this, interesting to see

  3. Pingback: Its Time to End Apartheid in America « Art of Possibility

  4. Barb McKenzie

    In their writings and workshop titled, HELL-BENT ON HELPING: Friendship, Benevolence, and the Politics of Help, Norm Kunc and Emma Van der Klift offer that, “The rights of people with disabilities will become permanent only when we are able to move beyond benevolence and achieve a social perspective where disability itself is valued.” They suggest and I agree that such things as buddy systems, many forms of what schools call ‘inclusion classrooms’, telethons, and certainly any form of segregated program that ‘supports’ people with disabilities such as sheltered workshops or separate art programs, “often serve the helpers as much (if not more) than those helped…While benevolence and charity towards others are often seen as admirable goals, they do not necessarily presuppose equity or respect.”
    I experienced this attitude last year when I talked with a local store in Columbus, Ohio that prides itself on selling products that benefit those producing them directly and supports social justice and was still offering items from Passion Works. When I suggested that the artists were not getting reimbursed directly for their works and that the money was going toward the program instead, the woman I spoke with said that she had visited Passion Works and thought that the people (without disabilities) in charge of the program were doing so much for these people and that the money was needed to support the program. This woman could not get past the wonderfulness of the helpers and the great needs of those being helped.
    How does that support equality or social justice?

  5. Gabrielle

    Wow! Yes. Someone else is saying exactly what I have been feeling. Thank you for putting it in words. What now?

  6. Manijeh

    I’d rather see my son in a studio setting creating than in an institution.

  7. Hi! I really enjoyed reading your post. I am a student at Ohio University in Athens, OH and I am writing a story about arts programs for the disabled. It’s basically about why they are important or unimportant to enhancing the lives of the disabled. I’d love to quote you in it from this post. Would that be okay with you?

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