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The Ethics of Collecting Works by Artists with Developmental Disabilities

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“I understand the need for the art world to categorize artwork that is made by people whose creative process didn’t stem from an MFA or BFA,” said Meyer. “It is an outdated term, but I also understand that it’s a way for the art world to understand what’s happening.” Creative Growth participates in the Outsider Art Fairs, she noted, and collectors “run the gamut” on whether they gravitate toward outsider art, art brut, or contemporary art—or all of the above. At last month’s Independent art fair in New York, for instance, one of the William Scott paintings for sale from Creative Growth’s presentation was purchased by , the hugely popular contemporary artist (and outsider art collector).

Ultimately, Meyer said, collectors are drawn to the work itself. “First and foremost it’s the artwork itself that captures people,” she said. “It’s unusual, or vibrant, or something that really speaks to them. The aesthetic of the work appeals to people. And then once they sort of learn who the artist is, and what Creative Growth is, it can also turn into more long-term support of that artist’s career and the organization. [Collectors] also like the fact that we split the sale with each artist, that they directly support that artist’s work.”

Higgs, who said he still finds the term “outsider art” useful, acknowledged that it becomes problematic when an outsider artist is marketed as someone who “is divorced from or isolated from normal conventional social life.” Creative Growth artists, he remarked, work within a communal space among other working artists. The outsider artist archetype is clichéd, he continued, and does not account for the varied ways self-taught artists and artists with developmental disabilities work.

“I’m not opposed to the term ‘outsider art,’ because I think it is simply a way of acknowledging difference,” Higgs explained. “One of the things we need to do more of is support difference, and to support artists who have unconventional histories, artists who historically might not have had access.”

Both Meyer and Higgs stressed the quality of the work by artists with developmental disabilities as the primary motivating factor for collectors. “Because these are self-taught artists and considered largely emerging in the contemporary art world, there is an allure of the discovery,” said Meyer. “[Collectors] are just taken by the artwork.”

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