A Disability Arts Group, Creative Growth, Makes History at SFMOMA

In 1974, Florence Lodenz Katz and Elias Katz—an artist and psychologist—converted the garage of their Berkeley home into an art studio for adults with developmental disabilities. Throughout California at the time, people with a range of disabilities were being deinstitutionalized, with little provision made for them after their release. The Katz family viewed art making as a path not only to personal fulfillment for people with disabilities, but also to their inclusion in a community that values ​​their work.

Half a century later, Creative Growth – as the rebellious and influential Auckland studio has been called – is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an exhibition, “Creative Growth: The House That Art Built” At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The exhibition builds on SFMOMA’s acquisition of more than 100 Creative Growth artworks valued at half a million dollars, the largest purchase by any American museum of works by artists with disabilities. The museum acquired another 43 pieces from Creative Growth’s sister organizations in California, which Katzes also founded: Creativity Explores in San Francisco and NIAD (Nurturing Independence through Artistic Development) in Richmond.

There was a time when such work was isolated within “outsider art” or popular art collections. However, over the past decade, it has become increasingly common to see the art of developmentally disabled artists integrated, without contextual fanfare, into group shows or biennials. Cultural institutions, from the Museum of Modern Art to the Brooklyn Museum, have sometimes acquired examples of such works, although they are rarely displayed except in private shows.

What happens at SFMOMA is different. The acquisition is part of a partnership with Creative Growth through which the museum, led by director Christopher Bedford since 2022, pledges to feature more works of art by people with developmental disabilities from the three Bay Area organizations in its collection displays, and thus in the canon of modernist art history.

Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Regulatory Studies at Bard College, calls the partnership “unprecedented.” Art historian Amanda Caccia – who writes about disability art – agrees: “The canon as we know it is being reorganized to include the voices of artists with disabilities who have long been excluded from these narratives. Museums have a long way to go in recognizing contemporary disability art.”

The partnership with SFMOMA, which began in late 2022, is a landmark achievement for Tom DeMaria, who joined Creative Growth as its CEO in 1999 and has led the organization to become the most successful and widely recognized studio of its kind in the United States. States.

“Creative Growth: The House That Art Built” opened on April 5, showcasing nearly 70 notable works by 11 of the center’s hundreds of current and former artists, along with a newly commissioned mural at the museum by Creative Growth artist The famous William Scott.

The partnership represents a breakthrough in the high corporate walls that Creative Growth has been seeking for years. While it may mark a turning point for Special Needs Arts, it also comes at a time of change for the organization, as DeMaria, 65, looks to retire and her employees transition to unionizing.

In 2019, Di Maria attempted to step down as leader of Creative Growth, first by sharing the director position, and later moving to the role of director emeritus. New hires do not stay in leadership roles for long. The pandemic has complicated matters further, disrupting Creative Growth’s operations. Since December, when CEO Ginger Schulich Porcella left after 12 months, Di Maria has once again taken over as interim CEO.

Di Maria told me that this type of leadership problem is common in arts nonprofits, where long-term directors have expanded their job descriptions as their organizations grow. “When they go, you’re looking for someone who is a fundraiser, a museum director, a human resources person, a grant writer, all in one place,” he said in an interview.

Under Di Maria’s leadership, Creative Growth has evolved in ways that make it difficult to distinguish from the nonprofit he inherited. Its annual budget has risen to $3.4 million from $900,000 in 1999, about a third of which is raised from sales of artists’ works. (Art sales grossed about $20,000 a year when he joined. When artists sell their work through Creative Growth, the organization gets a 50 percent discount.)

Di Maria has advanced Katz’s legacy by pushing for the integration of work by Creative Growth artists into the mainstream commercial art world. During his tenure, works of art were acquired by museums including the Center Pompidou in Paris, the Tate in London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Two Creative Growth artists, Judith Scott and Dan Miller, exhibited their work at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Many others have had solo shows at prestigious commercial galleries around the world.

Selling artwork to people with disabilities is a way to “get a seat at the table,” Di Maria says. Collectors acquire often inexpensive works and become invested in the lives of their makers; Merchants take notice and make offers; Prices rise; Museum boards promote the work they hold to museum curators; The work is donated to museum collections. Once art enters the museum, the real work can begin: changing the way the public values ​​and understands the lives of disabled artists.

On one level, the exhibition—organized by SFMOMA curators Jenny Gaith and Nancy Lim—presents a social history of disability arts in the Bay Area and the Katz family’s pioneering initiatives. This story is told through a well-designed interpretive display in a new exhibition called “Art in Your Life,” and in cases of ephemera such as fundraising letters and event announcements that frame the exhibition in documentary terms.

However, on another level, it is an artistic display no less accomplished than any art show in a museum. The first exhibition showcases the work of three of Creative Growth’s leading figures and one emerging talent. Dwight Mackintosh, who died in 1999, was one of the first artists from the organization to gain international attention for his drawings. Using felt tips and colored paint, he draws in his crooked hand groups of translucent shapes that are often surrounded by distinct, intermittently legible line.

McIntosh’s repeated mark-making rhymes with densely overlaid words and shapes in the drawings and paintings of Dan Miller, 62, and in a collaged sculpture by Judith Scott, who died in 2005: a small chair wrapped in strips of fabric and string, tied to other elements including a basket and a bicycle wheel. . Meanings are deeply buried in these works.

Do not confuse these practices with art therapy. Just like professional artists working with and reworking a range of ideas and motifs, Mackintosh, Miller and Scott spent decades honing their respective languages, producing works that embodied their powerful personal visions.

Also included in this first exhibition is an eye-catching video by Susan Janow, 43, her first foray into the field. In “Questions?” (2018), Jano stares into the camera, with pursed lips, while being asked questions (in voiceover, also recorded by Jano), starting with the most banal – “Are you wearing a watch?” – To the existentialist – “Do you trust others easily?” “Who do you miss?” “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” Her art reveals that her inner life is shaped as much by investigation as by confident deduction.

A highlight of the exhibition is a lively, untitled abstract painting, from 2021, by Berkeley resident Joseph Alf, 43. In the exhibition text, Alf explains that non-figurative work makes it “easier to get all the emotions out.” These texts admirably illustrate the artists’ processes and methods without revealing the nature of their disabilities, which may skew viewers’ interpretation of their art.

If some artists choose to share the details of their lives through their art, that is their right. Camille Holvoet, 71, who worked at Creative Growth until 2001, creates candid, cheerful drawings in bright colors that express her joys, anxieties and hopes. Created between 1987 and 1998, the images on display depict her medications, her fear of public transportation, her experience moving into a new group home, and—poignantly, in this context—an image of a smiling woman next to piles of cash and cash. Checks: “Earn more money as a good artist, with no SSI cuts and no pay tax.”

Normally, I’m not into such illustrative artwork. But Holvoet’s photographs fulfill one of the gallery’s deepest goals, and indeed the goals of the Creative Growth founders: to help disabled artists flourish as individuals with ability and potential. Whether an artist uses creative work to tell their life story or to overcome their circumstances, making art is a very intense act.

A typical example is William Scott’s commissioned mural “Praise of Fresco: Peace and Love in the City,” part of the museum’s “Bay Area Walls” series. Over the course of his career, Scott, 59, has crafted his vision of a future San Francisco utopia, a city he calls “Praise Frisco” that incorporates renewed elements from his past. In his mural at SFMOMA, we see smiling, youthful versions of himself and his mother, along with a clear depiction of the Alice Griffith public housing project where he grew up. (There are also green flying saucers labeled “Health Horizon Friendly Organizations.”)

Three days before this triumphant exhibition opened, Di Maria received a letter from Creative Growth team members announcing their intention to join the union. “Forming a union will help ensure more equitable employment and wage practices, uniform benefits, greater protections, safer working conditions, and improved procedures for transparency and accountability,” it reads.

Di Maria accepted to join the unions soon after, on 11 April. In recent years, workers at arts institutions across the country, from museums to art schools, have joined unions. Sam Lefebvre, a part-time artist assistant and member of Creative Growth United, told me that high turnover, due to unsustainable working conditions, can negatively impact artists, who may form close bonds with studio facilitators, and who often respond better to Routine and stability.

In this transitional moment for both Creative Growth and SFMOMA, all eyes are on the future. Museums across the country are working to connect more deeply with their audiences, and by including and celebrating the works of artists with disabilities in their collections, they will better reflect the lives and experiences of all their visitors.

“One in four people in the United States have a disability,” researcher Jessica Cooley, who writes about disability arts and museum studies, said in an interview. “Art and artists with disabilities are truly everywhere, in every group, making amazing impacts on the art world.” SFMOMA’s partnership with Creative Growth can be seen as just an acknowledgment of the contributions that disabled artists have made to the history of art.

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